Studio One, “The Arena”

Studio One, “The Arena”

Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

Portrait of a writer: Rod Serling, age 31, on the evening of April 9, 1956. At this moment in his career, Serling is one of the most successful men in the television business, and on the verge of becoming a has-been. He survived growing up in Binghamton, New York, where he worked hard to ingratiate himself with a community inclined to distrust and dislike Jews. He survived World War II, where he slogged through the Philippines and Manila, and where he once escaped close-range enemy fire because a buddy shot a sniper seconds before the sniper was going to shoot Serling. He made it through the grind of the progressive, conventional-thinking-defying Antioch College in Ohio, where he made pocket money working as a crash-test dummy for parachutes and ejector-seats. He served in the trenches of the radio and TV industry in Cincinnati in the early ’50s, pumping out daily scripts for fluff like Leave It To Kathy and Melody Showcase. Serling handled everything with aplomb—except fame.

While in Cincinnati, Serling began submitting and eventually selling TV scripts to the live network anthology shows then based out of New York, such as Hallmark Hall Of Fame, Lux Video Theatre, and Motorola Television Hour. He drew some positive attention for a few of those teleplays—most notably “The Strike,” a gritty Korean War drama which aired on Studio One in June of ’54—but nothing like the high-intensity spotlight that was turned on Serling after his “Patterns” aired on Kraft Television Theatre on January 12, 1955. An exciting, emotional, jargon-filled look at corporate cynicism, “Patterns” was such a sensation that it was actually re-staged and re-aired live a month later. In the published version of the teleplay, Serling wrote that in the two weeks after “Patterns” debuted, “I received 23 firm offers for television writing assignments; I received three motion picture offers for screenplay assignments; I had fourteen requests for interviews from leading magazines and newspapers; I had two offers of lunch from Broadway producers; I had two offers to discuss novels with publishers.” Or as he later put it, more succinctly: The phone started ringing and it never stopped.

Serling ramped up his productivity after “Patterns,” rather than taking his time to craft a follow-up. His impulse was understandable. After all, it wasn’t as though “Patterns” emerged after years of deliberation and rough drafts. Serling produced roughly a teleplay a month in the year before “Patterns,” and in the year that followed, he sought to capitalize on the sudden surge of interest in his work. Only now, the critics who’d hailed him as the successor to Paddy Chayefsky and Arch Oboler—two household names in an era where TV and radio writers were as famous as movie directors—were waiting impatiently for him to prove them right. Instead, Serling continued in much the mode he had before, alternating serious social topics with more lighthearted fare, and slathering both with a fair amount of purple prose and pop psychology. By April of ’56, 16 months after “Patterns,” Serling’s star was dimming, and he was eager to write a teleplay that would show he wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan.

“The Arena” was not that teleplay.

Produced by Studio One and directed by Franklin Schaffner (who later successfully transitioned from TV to movies with hits like Patton, The Boys From Brazil, and the partially Serling-scripted Planet Of The Apes), “The Arena” stars Wendell Corey as Senator James Norton, an appointee to a vacated seat, and the son of a career politician who bears a lifelong grudge against their state’s senior senator, Harvey Rogers (John Cromwell). To ease his transition into the culture of Washington, Senator Norton retains Jack Feeney (Chester Morris), a veteran adviser who some say “came here with Daniel Webster.” But Feeney can’t seem to get it through Norton’s head that it would be political suicide to make an enemy of Senator Rogers.

The root of Norton’s animosity? Rogers once blocked a political appointment that Norton feels should’ve gone to his father. Moreover, Rogers gave an interview in which he was asked to name the worst senators of the past two decades, and he cited Norton’s dad. So when the press starts pressing Norton on the Rogers issue, Norton jabs back at his enemy, knowing that’ll please his old man. (“Is that who you’re representing?” Norton’s concerned wife asks.) Meanwhile, Feeney gets drunk alone, contemplating whether he should share some information that would help his new protégé destroy his rival.

Finally, Feeney spills, telling Norton that Rogers was once a secret member of a racist organization known as “The Vindicators.” But because Feeney admires the senior legislator’s candor, he warns Rogers that Norton is planning to expose him, and gives Norton a chance to explain himself.

“The Arena” is very much of a piece with Serling’s other live TV plays. Like “Patterns,” it’s about a young, ambitious man entering an organization that’s set in its ways, and finding himself changed by the organization rather than the other way around. Like Serling’s The United States Steel Hour war drama “The Rack” (later made into a movie starring Paul Newman), “The Arena” features a protagonist whose choices are largely defined by his search for his father’s approval. And like so much of Serling’s work, “The Arena” comes to an unexpected yet logical and true-to-life conclusion, as Norton backs away from destroying Rogers, deciding he’d rather do the people’s business than his family’s.

“The Arena” also contains some of the elements that set live TV apart from movies, radio, and the legitimate theater. The blocking isn’t overly stagey; characters move out of frame, or position themselves so the camera can swing around to catch them in a close-up. The music (a pounding kettle drum) is too oppressive, but there are some grace notes in the set design, such as the floor tiles in Norton’s apartment, which resemble a chessboard.

And there are moments that show Serling in command of his craft, such as an early scene where Norton is appalled at Feeney’s suggestion that he’ll have to meet with and be civil to Rogers. Norton is adamant that he won’t take Rogers’ calls or receive him socially. Then he and Feeney are interrupted by his secretary Betty (played by Frances Sternhagen, who later had a thriving TV career playing old ladies, most notably on Cheers, where she played Cliff Clavin’s mother). Betty tells Senator Norton that Senator Rogers is waiting outside his office to say hello. After a moment’s hesitation, Norton caves.

That scene aside, though, “The Arena” is marred by Serling’s overwrought plotting and frequently hammy dialogue, full of generic politician-speak—as in this scene, where Rogers tells Norton on the Senate floor that his father was guilty of padding out bills with pork-barrel spending.

It isn’t just that the writing here is mediocre; it’s also acted badly, with Cromwell muffing his lines a little. In fact, throughout “The Arena,” Cromwell and Corey both stumble over lines, or hesitate while trying to remember them.

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Some actors on live TV—particularly the ones trained at The Actors Studio—had the knack of turning a flub into a natural moment, with the feel of real life.  And some viewers at home came to accept mistakes as part of the excitement of the medium. Interviewed by Gordon Sander for Sander’s book Serling: The Rise And Twilight Of Television’s Last Angry Man, playwright Tad Mosel said that the appeal of the live TV era was that “You really honestly had the feeling that Paul Newman was performing for you… like watching your children in a school play.” Much of the charge of live television was seeing people under pressure and rooting for them to succeed. These writers, directors and actors had one shot to nail a production, and then it was on to something else. 

The critics at the time tended to be less forgiving. “The Arena” drew a few good notices; Dave Kaufman in Daily Variety said Serling “incisively explores the practice and moral climate of politics,” while the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Harry Harris wrote that he “did much to regain his ‘Patterns’ prestige.” But Harris’ colleague Ernest Schier at the Philadelphia News countered, “I doubt if anything quite as childish transpires as that depicted in Rod Serling’s contribution to Studio One last night,” while The Hollywood Reporter’s Jack Rosenstein wrote, “Rod Serling must have had to blast his way through the cobwebs with a blowtorch to get to the old trunk from which he resurrected ‘The Arena.’ … An hour is a real long time for an issue such as this, with characters so conventional and with long maudlin speeches of mawkish idealism and pat dialogue.”

Serling would not have disagreed, though he could’ve proffered an excuse. Like his peers Chayefsky and Gore Vidal before him, Serling was becoming frustrated by the compromises required to work in television, where he had to please network bosses and sponsors as well as viewers and critics. In his introduction to the 1957 book Patterns: Four Television Plays With The Author’s Personal Commentaries, Serling wrote that “a medium best suited to illumine and dramatize the issues of the times has its product pressed into a mold, painted lily-white, and has its dramatic teeth yanked one by one.” It wasn’t just that sponsors were beginning to be wary of the downbeat material that writers like Serling and Chayefsky were turning out, but in the ’50s, people in the entertainment industry as a whole were being pressured to steer clear of anything resembling political statements, lest they be called before Congress to explain their intent to HUAC. While Serling stuck it out in TV, Chayefsky and Vidal fled to Hollywood and Broadway. (Vidal, for example, had a hit play in 1960 with The Best Man, a much savvier dissection of the American politics of that era, later made into a movie directed by Schaffner.)

The Patterns book intro goes on to explain exactly what screwed up “The Arena,” in Serling’s opinion:

One of the edicts that comes down from the Mount Sinai of Advertisers Row is that at no time in a political drama must a speech or character be equated with an existing political party or current political problems. […] ‘The Arena’ took place in 1956, and no juggling of events can alter that fact. So, on the floor of the United States Senate (at least on Studio One), I was not permitted to have my Senators discuss any current or pressing problem. To talk of tariff was to align oneself with the Republicans; to talk of labor was to suggest control by the Democrats. To say a single thing germane to the current political scene was absolutely prohibited. So on television in April 1956, several million viewers got a definitive picture of television’s concept of politics and the way government is run. They were treated to an incredible display on the floor of The United States Senate of groups of Senators shouting, gesticulating and talking in hieroglyphics about make-believe issues, using invented terminology, in a kind of prolonged, unbelievable double-talk… In retrospect, I probably would have had a much more adult play had I made it science fiction, put it in the year 2057, and peopled the Senate with robots. This would probably have been more reasonable and no less dramatically incisive.

Not long after he wrote that, Serling did venture into science fiction with “The Time Element,” a teleplay about a man who travels into the past to try to thwart the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At first no one would produce the script, but then it aired in 1958 as part of Desilu Playhouse, and was so well-received that CBS bought Serling’s pitch for what would become The Twilight Zone in 1959. By then, Serling had also finally had his post-“Patterns” breakthrough with the moving boxing melodrama “Requiem For A Heavyweight,” which was hailed as an instant classic when it aired on Playhouse 90 in October of ’56, seven months after the failure of “The Arena.” This time, Serling’s response to success was to slow down a bit and focus on quality; four months later, his next Playhouse 90 assignment was an adaptation of Ernest Lehman’s short story “The Comedian” for hotshot young director John Frankenheimer, which netted Serling his third consecutive Emmy for Best Teleplay Writing. He then made it four Emmys in 1960 when he won for the first season of The Twilight Zone, and five in 1961, again for The Twilight Zone.

Serling’s decision to shift away from live TV and overt social drama to the more coded fantasies of The Twilight Zone struck some of his former champions as a betrayal, and Serling himself ran hot and cold on his most enduring TV work for the rest of his short life. While writing the lion’s share of The Twilight Zone’s first couple of seasons, he also contributed occasionally to the few other remaining anthology shows from time to time, and worked on adapting his teleplays to the movies, as well as penning original film scripts. But the non-Zone anthology work of the ’60s is little-remembered (though Serling won his sixth Emmy in 1963 for one of those teleplays, “It’s Mental Work,” adapted from a John O’Hara story for Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theater), and most of his films either went unproduced or failed to wow the critics—with the noted exception of the 1964 political thriller Seven Days In May, brilliantly directed by his old TV colleague Frankenheimer. From the time The Twilight Zone went off the air in 1964 to Serling’s death in 1975, he filled his non-writing hours by appearing as a commercial pitchman, hosting the Zone-like ’70s anthology Night Gallery, lecturing on college campuses, and teaching university classes. Serling seemed to relish letting the college kids rip into him and his work. Like many great American pop artists—Charles Schulz comes to mind—Serling was humble enough to consider what he did unworthy of being called “great,” yet arrogant enough to grumble that it didn’t get as much attention as it deserved.

In short: Serling was like nearly every other professional writer. Later in life, Serling would lament that during his days in Cincinnati when he cranked out scripts by the hour, he squandered some terrific ideas that he didn’t have time to develop properly, and that he could never use again. But that’s the trade-off for writers who make a living at their craft. Starving artists and the rich-and-famous have the luxury to wait for inspiration and then hone and shape what comes. For writers with a steady gig on the other hand, “inspiration” is often a deadline and a paycheck. But there are benefits to that way of doing business too, besides the money. Being required to write means being required to search the mind for something to say. And who’s to say Serling would’ve had all those ideas he squandered if he hadn’t been on the clock?

Serling’s advantage was his speed. In Sander’s book, fellow TV writer Del Reisman marvels, “Once he got the idea, and he had it in his mind where he wanted it to go, he just went.” (Gore Vidal was pithier in his interview with Sander, saying that when it came to Serling, “It was easier for him to write a script than not.”) By the late ’50s, Serling began using a Dictaphone to write, which allowed him to complete a draft of a script almost in the time it would take to watch the finished product. And he was notoriously reluctant to revise, since he had so much other work sitting in his inbox. So yes, in Serling’s rush to keep the boat of his career afloat, he sometimes unconsciously borrowed ideas from other writers, and he sometimes repeated himself, or contradicted himself. He’d write yet another variation on “Patterns,” or he’d give a self-righteous interview about how commercials were killing the art of TV, then sign on a year later to pitch floor wax and headache pills. In the last interview Serling ever gave, to Linda Brevelle of Writers’ Digest Magazine, he was asked what TV business practices he’d tried to rebel against, and he admitted, “I haven’t rebelled vehemently against any of them. I have compromised down the line.”

But in spite of that, the work was personal, and it burned with Serling’s particular imagination and intensity. Serling retained whatever he saw, felt, or remembered, and dumped it all into his Dictaphone. That’s why the young executive of “Patterns” insists that he can always return to Cincinnati, where Serling started his career, and why the heroes of the classic Twilight Zone episodes “Walking Distance” and “A Stop At Willoughby” find themselves in towns that resemble the Binghamton of Serling’s boyhood. In script after script, Serling tried to say something, even if he ran out of time or patience before he could say it well. There’s even something of Serling in “The Arena,” in the scene when Senator Norton stands up for his principles and insists he’ll never extend any cordiality to Senator Rogers—mere seconds before he mutters to Feeney to send the bastard in.


Next time on A Very Special Episode: Soap, Episode 44