Sunday, May 11, 2008

This Day in Television History (Montgomery’s Version of O’Hara’s “Appointment” Airs)

May 11, 1953—In the fourth season of the anthology series named for him, Robert Montgomery appeared as Julian English in NBC’s adaptation of John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra. The episode remains the only treatment, on either the large or small screen, of a tale of drinking, depression (financial and mental) and fate among the eastern Pennsylvania country club set that placed among the Modern Library’s list of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century, as well as Time Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest novels since 1923.

In the 1930s O’Hara worked for awhile in Hollywood. Several of his novels and a number of his short stories (including the collection
John O’Hara’s Hollywood) focused on the film colony. For the most part, however, Hollywood made a hash of his work. Adaptations emphasized the romantic, the sentimental, and the sensationalistic while blunting the often bitter ironies and shrewd social observations present through most of his best work.

Big Vs. Small Screen Treatments

Ten North Frederick (1958), with Gary Cooper, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Suzy Parker, is generally regarded as the best of the bunch because of the quality of the performances. But the attempt to telescope the sprawling novel left critics such as the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther confused. A Rage to Live (1965), with Suzanne Pleshette, suffered even more from compression. And Elizabeth Taylor owed her Oscar for Butterfield 8 (1960) more to her offscreen near-fatal illness than to the quality of her performance. (MGM, hoping to cash in on her notoriety for stealing Eddie Fisher away from Debbie Reynolds, dusted off the 1935 O’Hara tale of Prohibition-era drinking and promiscuity, one that they hadn’t been able to film for years because of Production Code restrictions. The actress was not enthralled with the property, calling it “the most pornographic script I have ever read.”)

In contrast, the small screen has treated O’Hara far better, perhaps because it has focused on properties that were smaller in scope to begin with. If you’re old enough and had a sharp-enough attention span, as I was in high school in 1976, you might fondly remember Gibbsville, on for all of seven episodes, with a pre-Deer Hunter John Savage as the O’Hara stand-in, James Malloy, and Gig Young as an alcoholic reporter. Better yet was the 1987 PBS version of the O’Hara novella “Natica Jackson,” with Michelle Pfeiffer, just starting her ascendancy as a serious actress, playing a glamorous 1930s star who gets caught up in an affair and shocking tragedy.

Best of all might be Montgomery’s adaptation of the book commonly considered O’Hara’s best. At the time, the teleplay, directed by Herbert Bayard Swope Jr. and written by Irving Gaynor Neiman, was considered successful. Today, Appointment in Samarra seems poignant: a half-forgotten actor of achievement meeting a novelist similarly neglected by posterity.

Baby boomers are likely to recall Montgomery, if they do at all today, as the answer to a trivia question: “Who was the father of Elizabeth Montgomery?” The actor (that’s his picture accompanying this post) deserves to be better known than simply the dad of the Bewitched star, as anyone who spends any time watching his work on DVD or Turner Classic Movies can attest.

An Underrated Actor-Hyphenate

The studio system liked to fit stars into personality types that people could understand, and the one that MGM chose for him was the sophisticated playboy—something you can easily grasp, given that Montgomery for years was considered one of the best-dressed men in Tinseltown.

But the actor wanted to stretch, and before long he showed he had the chops for it. His performance in the 1937 version of Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall, as a psychotic lower-class killer, went wildly against type and won him an Oscar nomination, as did his role in Here Comes Mister Jordan four years later. (Modern audiences might be more familiar with remakes of both films: Albert Finney in a more obvious, inferior version of the former, and Warren Beatty in Heaven Can Wait, a pretty good reworking of the latter.)

An unexpected stint finishing up They Were Expendable for John Ford gave Montgomery a hankering for directing, something he very soon indulged with two film noirs: The Lady in the Lake, the most innovative (if not necessarily successful) cinematic adaptation of a Raymond Chandler mystery, and Ride the Pink Horse, his version of the Dorothy B. Hughes novel.

But soon the new medium of television beckoned, with NBC offering him the chance to do a series that he would produce, host and, when the urge hit him, star in. Loving a challenge –and perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall for his continued prospects as a leading man as he approached his mid-40s—Montgomery jumped at the chance.

Starting in 1950 and continuing for the next seven seasons, “Robert Montgomery Presents…” was one of the live, dramatic anthology series that television did so well in those days. As I argued
in my tribute to the late television writer James Costigan, the anthology series provided numerous opportunities for fledging literary talents such as Costigan, Roald Dahl, Richard Matheson, Reginald Rose, Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, and Ray Bradbury to cut their teeth. It also provided Montgomery with another achievement: the Emmy for Best Dramatic Program in 1952, along with nominations in that category for 1951 and 1953.

Why did O’Hara allow Montgomery to adapt his best novel? I haven’t yet been able to determine how the two met, whether through mutual associations dating back to 1930s Hollywood or more recently. But the prickly novelist must have liked the job Montgomery performed on The Farmer’s Hotel, an inferior 1947 novel that the producer adapted for his show in 1952. Certainly, with the Modern Library reissuing Appointment in Samarra in 1953, a TV adaptation would bring it greater attention.

Affinities Between Novelist and Producer

Equally likely, the two might have found that in certain respects, their backgrounds and attitudes meshed. In other words, Montgomery had a liking for the author and enough affinity for the material to assure it would be treated with respect, as seen in the following ways:

* Both men had daughters on whom they doted: O’Hara lavished on Wylie the kind of unconditional affection that few others were privileged to know, while Montgomery gave Elizabeth her first television acting credits on his show.
* Both men hit creative troughs in the 1940s: Montgomery desperately needed reassurance from John Ford on the set of They Were Expendable that his acting skills hadn’t rusted after the interruption of World War II, while O’Hara admitted to having experienced “creative sterility” at nearly the same time.
* Both men hungered to see action in WWII: O’Hara’s physical ailments precluded any active service, despite shameless attempts at lobbying friend James Forrestal for a commission. Montgomery was more fortunate, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander. His last production was The Gallant Hours, a 1960 biopic about Admiral William F. Halsey, his Pacific commander.
* Both men were liberal in the 1930s but became Republicans in the postwar era. Montgomery served four terms as President of the Screen Actors Guild. O’Hara supported FDR during the 1930s. After the war, both men grew increasingly conservative. By 1947, Montgomery, along with Ronald Reagan and George Murphy, had become a “friendly witness” before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the 1952 Presidential campaign, he advised Dwight Eisenhower on how to present his speeches and appearances. (Eight years later, Ike thought Nixon would have outperformed JFK in the first Presidential debate if Montgomery had been his adviser.) The Cold War shifted O’Hara increasingly to the right as well—so much so that, nearly two decades later, he seriously alienated much of the liberal critical establishment—and made himself look plain stupid—by writing in a mercifully short-lived weekly Newsday column that Martin Luther King Jr. did not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.
Both men were born into affluence, but were forced to fend for themselves when their fathers died relatively young. Dr. Patrick O’Hara had risen high in society in Pottsville, Pa., but he died intestate. Much of his remaining money left in trust for John and the rest of his children vanished in the bank failures of the Depression. Similarly, Montgomery had known privilege as the son of an executive with the New York Rubber Co. But when Henry Montgomery Sr. died, catastrophe followed the settlement of his estate, as it did with Dr. O’Hara’s. Robert took work as a mechanic’s helper and tanker deckhand before becoming an actor.

In terms of understanding the nuances of O’Hara’s novel, the last point of similarity with the novelist was probably the most fortunate for Montgomery. He would have understood that Appointment in Samarra was about much more than just the frank treatment of sex that had attracted the attention of smuthounds after publication in 1934. Unlike later Hollywood screenwriters, he would have been keenly alert to the book’s nuances about upward and (in Julian’s case) downward mobility, as well as the desperation not far below its surface.

A good thing the star-producer brought this kind of feeling to the adaptation, because in another crucial respect he would have been dismissed out of hand. Without plastic surgery, Montgomery would never have been able today to get away with his habit of playing characters considerably younger than himself. (Insanely, at age 50, he took on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby for TV, a role at least two decades his junior.)

That age differential was not much better when Montgomery played O’Hara’s doomed Gibbsville socialite. By all rights, the episode should have been a mess. But to my surprise and relief when I watched it several years ago at the Museum of Television and Radio (now the
Paley Center for Media), it was anything but that.

Several years later, Paul Newman’s effort to purchase the big-screen rights to Appointment in Samarra foundered when O’Hara insisted on one million dollars upfront. From the Terrace (a property, I think, that might have worked better as one of those 1970s miniseries) was the consolation prize. To date, Montgomery’s version of Appointment is the only one that’s ever been attempted.

Newman would have been more age-appropriate for Julian English than Montgomery but, I’ve come to believe, not necessarily better. He would never have been to summon the elegance that Montgomery evinced so effortlessly (as you might expect from someone who for a long time refused to carry wallets because they ruined the drape of his suits).

More important, Montgomery’s age meant that he endowed English with a weariness not so apparent on the written page, where the character comes off often as a truculent drunk rather than a desperate man. That weariness is essential for eliciting sympathy for his fate.

“Fate.” That word brings us to another reason why the adaptation worked so well, in contrast to so many others involving O’Hara. Set over three days during the Christmas season, it obeys the classic unities necessary for tragedy dating back to the Greeks—unlike the decades-sprawling social histories that increasingly consumed O’Hara’s attention in the last two decades of his life.

An Unfortunate Denouement

O’Hara’s well-known boorishness ensured that some of his best work never made it to film. Eight years after their largely successful collaboration on Appointment in Samarra, O’Hara took umbrage over, if you can believe it, telephone etiquette when Montgomery inquired about the possibility of adapting his fine novella from the Sermons and Soda-Water trilogy, “Imagine Kissing Pete.”

As you might expect with an actor-hyphenate, the busy Montgomery had his secretary call the novelist before he came on the phone. As Geoffrey Wolff recounts in a revealing anecdote from his half-terrific, half-exasperating
The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O'Hara, the novelist wrote that “Bob Lovett” and “Jim Forrestal” had made their own calls to him. Montgomery’s response effectively ended what could have been another mutually rewarding project: “It does not give me any greater confidence in our security to know that they were so meticulous in not offending your sense of telephone propriety.”

All of this is a shame. Many O’Hara aficionados such as myself wish, as the author with more short stories published in The New Yorker than any other writer, that O’Hara had been more careful how he treated people who could affect his reputation for the better, particularly one like Montgomery who approached his work with understanding. The flameout of this relationship demonstrates what so many of his would-be friends knew too well: how impossible he could be.

It was not always that way, though, and I’d like to close this post with an incident that shows the writer at his best, the way he was with people like Philip Barry, John Steinbeck, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. At the end of the performance of Appointment in Samarra, cast and crew decided to head out to Manhattans’ “21 Club” to celebrate. (This was three months before a near-fatal health scare put O’Hara on the wagon for the duration of his life.)

One of the crew was hanging back, probably out of shyness: a young stage manager named Dominick Dunne. O’Hara would have none of it: “I want you to come, too.” Dunne did and, I’m sure, came away with a tremendous appreciation for the older writer’s way of eliciting information from friends and the nuances of class—material that has been the stuff of his own fiction all these years later.


Jack Antonio said...

I share you admiration for O'Hara and Montgomery. But, I disagree about My Turn. I recently read a complete collection of the columns and they hold up better than most such period pieces. In fact, in many ways O'Hara was ahead of the time and prophetic.
He was also not the only notable who was not a fan of MLK just one of the few including Truman to be open. In private, RKF and JFK did not rate the plagarizing, whore beating "Rev" either.

barrylane said...

Robert Montgomery was not, is not and has never been underrated. He is forgotten by the current generation, which is not at all the same thing. Most of the people from the thirties are forgotten, at least momentarily. That is all. Not a tragedy. They all made big money.