Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Best of "Person to Person"

I'm working my way through "The Best of Person to Person," a 3 DVD set of highlights from Edward R. Murrow's 1950s interview program. I've always admired Murrow, but this is the first time I've actually SEEN him in action. His ability to overcome technical difficulties, put his guests at ease, and keep an interview going is amazing.

I can't believe that they managed to pull this off given the technology of the day; it would be difficult even now. CBS would set up multiple cameras -- not to mention lights, sound equipment, and satellite transmission equipment -- in the homes of the interviewees, many of them in Hollywood, and Murrow would interview them live from New York City.

Watching these people casually walk throughout their homes, from camera to camera, appearing to have a relaxed conversation with a man thousands of miles away, is a surreal experience for the media-savvy viewer. They really go out of their way to make it all seem effortless and natural, often saying things like "let's see if they're home" and "come on into the kitchen." They routinely haul the kids out of bed and make them "say hi to Mr. Murrow."

Only when things go wrong -- or when Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh have to take a detour through their back yard to avoid all the stuff in their hallway -- do you realize that Murrow's physical BODY isn't really visiting them...and neither is yours. The illusion is also slightly broken by the poor quality of the transmission and the slightly out-of-control setup; the men don't suffer much, but those glamorous Hollywood starlets look much shabbier than usual.

Some interviews are more interesting than others. Danny Thomas and his family come across as insufferable fakers; it's obvious that everybody has been "coached" to death and Thomas' maudlin sincerity is disgusting. Billy Graham and Robert Kennedy are quite warm, and Eleanor Roosevelt gives the impression of a vibrant, intelligent matriarch. Norman Rockwell is as nerdy and boring as you'd imagine him to be.

It's fun to watch husbands and wives interact with each other. Ben Gage and Esther Williams spar with barely-submerged duelling egos, while Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh seem like slightly hyperactive, off-balance rodents (get a load of Curtis replaying his Brooklyn-ized Shakespeare renditions off his hi-fi). Gary Merrill and Bette Davis are pretty convincing on the surface but are very definitely "acting" the role of settled-down Maine "Yankees" (Davis shows off her lazy susan, then makes offhand mention that you can fly out of Maine at breakfast and arrive in Los Angeles in time for dinner!). Humphrey Bogart seems sincere, but Lauren Bacall -- creepy eyes almost without pupil in the poor-quality reception -- acts a bit squirrelly.

In terms of being "stiff," John F. Kennedy, Marlon Brando, and Gene Kelly take the cake. Sophia Lauren has a fascinating, sophisticated exterior that seems to float gently over a vapid soul (though this may have been a language issue).

So far the award for "most uncomfortable interview" goes to the hellish farmhouse trio of Marilyn Monroe, Milton Greene, and Amy Greene. Milton refuses to look at the camera and sullenly schlumps around the house, while Amy comes across as bossy and trashy (suddenly interrupting a question with a demand that they all sit someplace more comfortable). After five hours of makeup, Monroe looks unnatural-alien in the farmhouse kitchen, and not even Murrow can get more than a sentence or two out of her. And she sounds like a six-year-old who grew up in a fairy story. I've never made up my mind about her mental abilities, but in this interview she comes across as barely capable.

But that's nothing! I have yet to watch what I assume are the most terrifying interviews of all: Milton Berle, Carol Channing, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr., and...brrrrrr! LIBERACE!


Eric Little said...

I saw these live.

The myth is that he did these shows to support his more serious journalistic work ("Harvest of Shame," the McCarthy show--"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars..."), but he always appeared to enjoy doing these. Some people claim he did the show to broaden his base.

Ed should have laid off those Camels, though, even if they did contribute to the memorable sound of his voice and were a useful prop.

Adam Thornton said...

Jeez, the cigarettes! They might as well have been on a conveyer belt to his mouth. And in terms of breaking the illusion, his cigarette smoke has a nifty way of drifting BEHIND the window he's supposedly IN FRONT OF. Before the days of CSO, they'd just plop a "picture-in-picture" effect into the frame with some sort of crude mask.

Hmmmm, he does seem to be enjoying himself most of the time. He obviously has a great deal of respect for some of his interview subjects, and I get the feeling that he actually liked the children.