Friday, June 15, 2012

The Cavalcade of America Television Series

The Cavalcade of America was one of the most prestigious dramatic radio programs on the network (1935-1954). Sponsored by DuPont as a means of enhancing the company's image, it featured dramas of American History (or stories of true Americans who pioneered the advancement of something that we, today, take for granted). Major Hollywood celebrities made guest appearances.

So it was no surprise that when television came into being, DuPont wanted to jump in on the bandwagon. Broadcasting on both mediums was very expensive, but unsure which would be more successful, DuPont decided in late 1952 and early 1953, to be on both radio and television and judge the response. Television apparently won out and the radio program went off the air in March of 1953. The earliest episodes of the television series presented dramas of American history, from George Washington to Benjamin Franklin, and some of the most meticulously accurate stories of American heroes both famous and obscure were highlighted.
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New to the television medium, DuPont feared putting all their eggs in one basket, and hired five different companies to produce a number of episodes. This led to productions of variety (meaning they didn't look like the product of the same studio, using the same sets and costumes). Among them was Screen Gems (Columbia Pictures) and Jack Chertok, the man responsible for bringing The Lone Ranger to television. Over the next four years, other companies were contracted to produce a number of episodes, and that same tradition continued until the series went off the air in 1957.

Very few of the episodes are available commercially on DVD. It has been a misconception that all of the episodes fell into the public domain. Truth be known, most of them are protected under copyright. The copyrights were not only renewed (verified by the Library of Congress copyright office) but reference books specializing in listing copyright registrations for television programs inadvertently overlooked the renewal registrations and this may have caused some of the confusion. The commercials promoting DuPont, produced separately, were individually copyrighted and those copyrights were also renewed. The theme music is also copyrighted.

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DuPont actually made plans to bring Cavalcade to television in the fall of 1949, but quickly discovered they had a number of obstacles to overcome before it could get its show before the cameras. DuPont was in talks with advertising executives at BBD&O, the advertising agency, discussing the possibilities of simulcasting the show, with audio from the television series being used for the radio program, but BBD&O, could not figure out how to televise at the same time, especially since the same TV period was then occupied by Milton Berle.

DuPont had initially objected to the idea of separate radio and video shows, desiring to get all the talent costs onto a single ledger sheet. The closest they came was the proposal to broadcast the series on television, at a different time slot, and would then make a tape recording of the sound from the TV show, then rebroadcast it with some editing as the radio offering. Of course, this flopped.

For anyone who hasn't seen any of the television productions, I recommend you seek them out. Among the highlights and notables are "New Salem Story," the story of Abraham Lincoln’s arrival in New Salem, his early career there, his first two political campaigns, and his romance with Nancy Rutledge. When Nancy is broken-hearted because she’s been jilted by another, Lincoln offers to date her, to help her save face before the townspeople, and in once moment her weepiness gives way to the height of gaiety. As a result, there is an insincere quality to the entire affair.

This episode was broadcast in February 1953, in recognition of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Two years later in February of 1955, this episode would be rebroadcast in recognition of the same holiday. All of the episodes from the first season were adaptations from the radio scripts. The only flaw is the laughable portrayal of Honest Abe Lincoln who acts like a young school boy in love and not the man we came to know as the President of the U.S. A few mediocre lines in two campaign speeches are all that’s offered the viewer.

Cavalcade of America TV Episode
In "The Stolen General," a second season effort, the Gil Ralston-Arthur Ripley production was a departure from the customary vein of the series, and the announcer carefully explained in the beginning that DuPont wanted to show one of the more amusing incidents of American history. The Revolutionary War period story was smoothly unfolded except for one dream sequence, which had not yet been done on the series before.

"The Skipper's Lady" told the story of a mutinous crew on the high seas that discovered terror for the lady on the bridge, who was determined to see the ship through to its port of call. Paul Langton, skipper of the Neptune, 52 days out of Frisco, fell ill of brain fever and the command passed on to Lee Van Cleef, loaded with rum and belligerently zealous of the responsibility he is to inherit. Sally Brophy, the skipper’s wife, fears for the safety of the craft and its crew and he’s put away in irons. She mounts the bridge with the aid of loyal crewmen who scorn the mutineers and brings the ship through safe waters. With the exception of the mutineers, this story was not told through Hollywood fashion, but the story was more fictional than documentary, something different from most of the usual Cavalcade productions of the time. Most of the crew understood the situation and did not make a big scene out of it, acting as calm and sincere as a real crew would under the circumstances. The men act like real salts and pound the deck with the fury of the angry sea around them. Stock footage of the seascape was incorporated into the picture to add a sense of high production values but today, viewers can notice the stock shots because they are more grainy than footage of the original production.

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"Moonlight Witness," a third season Flying A production, was produced by Gene Autry. Yes, the cowboy star Gene Autry. Not wanting to see his television debut in the form of old cowboy movies he made ten or fifteen years prior, Autry formed Flying A Pictures to produce a series of half-hour westerns for CBS-TV, starring Autry himself. Wrigley paid 30 to 50 percent of the production costs and obtained first transmission rights in return. Subsequent rights were retained by Autry's Flying A Pictures. Producer Armand Schaefer and Autry’s business agent, Mitchell Hamilburg, were in on the project. This opened the door for a number of other television series, produced by Gene Autry, who now profited as a television producer. Range Rider, The Adventures of Champion and Annie Oakley were among the more popular programs of the 1950s. Sponsors such as DuPont took it upon themselves to hire Flying A Pictures to produce their television episodes such as "Moonlight Witness." Seized with compassion for an old friend, whose son is charged with being a killer, Lincoln takes time away from his epic debates with Stephen Douglas to defend the youth. When a witness testified he saw the crime in full moon, Lincoln sent for the Farmer’s Almanac, which proved his contention there was no moon out that night. This freed the lad. Earlier Lincoln was fined $5 for making jokes in the courtroom.

"Saturday Story" told of a small town football coach who becomes a big success. He imbues his “boys” with good sportsmanship, so that they learn how to lose as well as win. Eventually the coach is forced to quit because of ill health. But he’s rich in memories, and his prize pupil, Otto Graham, is the personification of the fundamentals drilled into him by his high school coach. Otto Graham plays himself, and the Northwestern-Cleveland Browns’ back turns in a competent performance. Even more fun was the fact that John Garberry was the sports consultant for this episode. After the story concludes, the real-life Mark Wilson and his wife are briefly interviewed by Frank Leahy, who, incidentally, shows up well as host-narrator. This episode also served as a proposed Four Star Productions television pilot for a Frank Leahy series, that never sold. (Leahy was the former head football coach for the University of Notre Dame.)

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In season four's "Toward Tomorrow," also a Four Star Production, centered on the early life of Dr. Ralph Bunche rather than the United Nations official’s achievements in his adult career. The story centers on the guidance of his grandmother, and closes with a quick summation of Dr. Bunche’s achievements. James Edwards, who plays the adult Bunche, stepped out of character to read a wire from Bunche in which he gives full credit for his success to the dignity and nobility of his grandmother. Both DuPont and Four Star chose to avoid any racial discriminations the young Negro encountered, and there was only one slight reference to it; this showing his suspicion of discrimination was a figment of his own imagination. It’s doubtful that was the case in real life. One has to wonder if the film could have been shown abroad as U.S. propaganda to offset the Russian charges that the Negro is oppressed and had no future here.

Beginning with Season Four, DuPont initiated a new policy featuring more modern stories, instead of historical, as part of the “new” Cavalcade policy of intermingling modern tales with those of yesterday. Most of the modern-day stories dealt with Americans who fought against Communist infiltrations, escape from behind the Iron Curtain, the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents, and other factors with the current newspaper headlines. The title of the program changed to the DuPont Cavalcade, and later the DuPont Theater.

"Who Is Byington?" starred the late Harry Morgan, and told the story of was correspondents during Civil War days who were a hardy lot, who fought for news beats like the troops fought for high ground. When the only telegraph line was shattered by shot and shell, the newsmen were put to their own devices to get the news through. Harry Morgan’s rivals on the New York Times and Herald used horse relay, while he had them believe he was poking along on shanks mare, the phrase then for just plain footwork. All the while Morgan was having the broken lines repaired and got through his big scoop. Humanity has its place, too, and when dying soldiers were brought into their quarters, Morgan disclosed that the wire was working again, so he could put through a call for medical help. When the message was signed by a name unknown to President Lincoln, he asked, “Who’s Byington?” Historically, the narrative was so well documented it has been postponed for a year after its initial filming to get legal clearances from descendants of some of the historical figures.

The final season contained all modern day stories, dramatized from some basis of fact (sometimes a simple newspaper clipping). Future celebrities such as Patty McCormack and Michael Landon are seen in those episodes, and the majority of the films in collector hands originate, sadly, from the final season. Variety, which raved favorably during the first two seasons, was by this time being harshly critical. Some of the stories during the final season was meant to pluck a heart-string, the paper reported. "Instead of attacking the tear ducts, some of the stories affected the eyelids."

The final episode of the series, "Chicago 2-1-2," was a pilot for a proposed series. (There had been at least four of them during the series' run, and not uncommon for a dramatic television anthology.) On the trail of a firebug, in the hire of an insurance bilker, Frank Lovejoy cornered his quarry through the device of a camera and the weakness of the blaze-setter, who liked to stand around and watch his destructive work. Once the reel was run off, Lovejoy pin-pointed the hired assistant, and on his next job was nabbed after a long chase and confessed. Appearing in the cast was Roy Thinnes, making his TV film debut. When I talked to Roy Thinnes at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention in 2010, he recalled fondly how Frank Lovejoy left a big impression on him.

A misconception of the television series is the statement that the series was syndicated. It truly was a weekly network program. However, there is evidence to support the claim of syndication. In June of 1953, Broadcasting reported that Cavalcade was also sponsored in multiple markets even though it was essentially network, “but because of lack of station clearances, the sponsors have booked time in local outlets.” In March of 1955, DuPont had a temporary falling out with ABC-TV, and negotiated the program with NBC for a new fall lineup. NBC, however, could not find a reasonable time slot, so DuPont continued at a later time slot in September of 1955 on ABC, and Billboard reported, "DuPont uses many local stations of its own choosing and has for several years, because it is able to get better time on them."

In the fall of 1956, DuPont licensed 39 episodes to Official Films, who edited the earliest episodes of the series for a proposed syndicated anthology, titled The American Story. The new series was quickly sold to a dozen markets before it was decided to change the title to The American Legend. It seems the original title, The American Story, had to be changed because it conflicted with a radio property owned by Broadcast Music, Inc. The series was a success (even though it's considered a rerun since people saw the same films, even with different commercials and different opening and closing credits). In March of 1957, Official licensed an additional 41 episodes, making a total of 80 for syndication.

Martin Grams Jr. is the author of The History of the Cavalcade of America (1999, Morris Publishing).