Friday, November 7, 2014

Playhouse 90: The Death of Manolete

Playhouse 90 was, by general agreement, the last great live anthology drama on American network television. It was also the best. As the name suggested, each episode ran 90 minutes, already a step beyond the typical 60- or 30-minute drama. Although Playhouse 90 featured the same wide range of subject matter as other anthologies, many episodes aspired to grand spectacle. Battlefields, sinking ships, and tropical jungles were all recreated for episodes of Playhouse 90, which was produced in both New York and Los Angeles studios. With a very large budget, the network succeeded in providing the best television could offer. Even the worst dramas had high caliber and warrants viewing.... even today.

The first episode of the second season was "The Death of Manolete" and following a critically-acclaimed first season, producer Martin Manulis insisted on a top-notch drama to launch the second year. But even with superb direction by John Frankenheimer and the return of Jack Palance from last year's Emmy-winning "Requiem for a Heavyweight," it failed to succeed. The main reason was because the network rushed the production into the broadcast schedule to compete with a rival program, The General Electric Theater.

"The Death of Manolete" was the dramatic biography of Manuel Rodriguez Manolete, known as one of the great matadors of modern times, who died in the bullring on August 28, 1947. Manolete longed to battle the mythical Minotaur and neither his manager, his true love or his mother could convince him to stay out of the ring. Manolette succeeds in his attempt to maintain his position as the idol of Spain... and pays the price.

Bullfighting became the subject of a network television show for the first time in the history of the industry when CBS expressed an interest in The Day Manolete Was Killed, which originated as a special disk album written and narrated by author and bullfight expert Barnaby Conrad. The commercial record was produced by Josh Moss for Audio-Fidelity, but neither of the two would participate in the television adaptation. That chore was assigned to Barnaby Conrad personally, after the story was earmarked for consideration by producer Martin Manulis. By early July, the first draft was in the works and plans to make use of actual films of Manolete fighting would be integrated into the drama. Bullfight subjects had become fairly commonplace as film fare since 1950 or 1951, but television stayed away from the subject because of the graphic nature of the sport and the fatal demise of the bull. Real bullfights were, of course, banned in the United States. But CBS wanted to use Playhouse 90 as the launching pad for taboo subjects in the hopes that subject material such as this one would become accepted by the general public. For Playhouse 90, the gruesome depiction of the bulls being finished off was provided courtesy of stock footage and a fake bull head for the live footage.

When Manulis returned from his vacation in early August (he was not set to return until mid-August), he discovered CBS was in a race to transcend the property of bullfighting to network television. G.E. Theatre already completed a dramatic bullfight story, “Cornada,” starring Tony Curtis, and was scheduled for airing in November. The television drama was filmed at Revue Studios months prior and used clips from actual bullfights taken at the Plaza De Toros in Seville, Spain. Under the direction of Herschel Daugherty, and a script by Jameson Brewer, the half-hour production would have been the first bullfight story dramatized on network television had it not been for Playhouse 90. It was because of the G.E. Theatre production that CBS immediately assigned the un-produced feature the title of “The Death of Manolete” and the life of one of the greatest bullfighters Manolete (1917-1947) was announced in a press release as the season opener. With the network rushing to get this drama on the air, it was perhaps too hurried and ultimately production suffered.

Jack Palance as Manolete
Due to the success of “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” CBS approached Jack Palance in mid-August. The actor recently returned from Mexico where he co-starred with Maria Felix in The Flower of May, a theatrical film, has not yet decided if he would take the role. After reviewing the Barnaby Conrad script, Manulis discovered the script was not good enough to submit to Palance and replaced Conrad as writer of the teleplay, assigning Paul Monash to handle a re-write. Smooth talking over the phone between Manulis and Palance cinched the deal and on August 15, Palance signed to star in the lead. On August 16, the actor flew with director John Frankenheimer for three days in Mexico, during which they watched real bullfights to prepare for authenticity in the play. Casting was completed before the end of August, with Ray Danton signed for the second male lead to Jack Palance.

Before Manolete met his death in he bull ring on Playhouse 90, director John Frankenheimer and his crew passed through one of television’s most complicated patterns of production. He threw the cues for 110 film inserts, lined up 1,000 different camera shots, called the turns on seven cameras (four were customary) and kept his technical crew of 45 alerted to all the changes. Four separate scenes partially depicted the drama through the reflection of a mirror. It took three men to operate the mechanical bull. All the hard work paid off. The Trendex rated 24.9 for Playhouse 90. The stiffest competition, The Lux Video Theater, averaged off at 10.5 for a swan song -- the final telecast of the long-running Lux program.

The G.E. Theatre production with Tony Curtis making his television dramatic debut as a bullfighter, was not without controversy. A few days after the Playhouse 90 production aired on CBS, Revue Productions and B.B.D.&O. had a full-scale hassle with the CBS censors over their up-coming production, and accused the network of selling a double-standard in its continuity & acceptance practices. Every teleplay for every dramatic program that aired over the network was subjected to review by the network’s legal eagles, who dictated brief reports of unacceptable language and scenes. This was to protect the network from potential lawsuits. Dialogue and scenes that were deemed questionable were usually ruled out. When the producer Martin Manulis received a report from the network that was not in their favor, they questioned why Playhouse 90 received favorable treatment. At the root of the hassle was the fact that the network ordered cuts in bullfight sequences in the G.E. film, “Coronada,” with which Revue complied, on the basis that they were too violent and bloody.
Jack Palance and Suzy Parker during rehearsals.
Richard Lewis, the producer of G.E., accused CBS of allowing similar scenes to be used on its own Playhouse 90 series, and accused the network of favoring its own programs in its censorship practices. Revue reportedly insisted that the cuts be restored, on the basis that what’s good enough for a CBS house show was good enough for an outside package. CBS eventually bowed to pressure from legals representing General Electric, allowing the cuts to be restored.

Critics stabbed the entire production in the manner of a real-life bullfighter. Compared to all the first season productions, “The Death of Manolete” was among the worst productions of Playhouse 90 to date. Billboard reviewed: “The great Manolete suffered a posthumous goring on the opening telecast of the new season, chief culprits including the writers, directors and casting director. A stilted, muddled script which cried ‘art’ and delivered fragmentary vignettes and 73 poor quality film clips laid the rocky foundation. What made the millions who ‘adored him’ before and after his death shun him cruelly during his final performances was not explained. What made his eyesight suddenly shaky and just as suddenly improve was unclear. What made Jack Palance affect a high tenor monotone in the role proved sabotage. The ‘courage and glory that was his’ were absent in what sounded like a literal translation from the Spanish. ‘This of the bulls is a serious,’ Palance was called upon to intone to a would-be torero. Suzy Parker was so inadequate as his mistress as to be comical. Only Nehemiah Persoff, as his manager, and H.M. Wynant, who vanished too soon as a rival hero, made something genuine out of the massive sham. Producer Martin Manulis bit off more than his staff could chew, not technically (it went smoothly) but artistically. Barnaby Conrad’s forthcoming book has to be more moving and illuminating than this adaptation or it’ll be outsold by the life of Sidney Franklin. Healthy plugs for the next three Playhouse 90 shows looked more promising, and the various commercials were brisk and effective.”

Jack Palance later blamed himself for the poorly-received telecast, meant to be a promising start for the second season of Playhouse 90. “I watched the show [via kinescope] and was a little bored by it,” he admitted. “I thought ‘Manolete’ was messed up all the way around. We tried to make the hero too human, and when there’s too much fear and too much love, it makes him inept. It was my fault mostly. I wanted him to be human rather than heroic I went along with the writing, but I share as much of the blame as the script. I like to take compliments when they’re mine, and the opposite when they fall that way. When you show a man’s life for the first time, you shouldn’t go overboard on the human side. You should show him as he looks in the ring, too. A jarring note was the way the guy was so brave in the ring, but outside of it he was so full of fear. I went overboard. I can’t help myself as an actor by blinding myself to this. But I think when you have a real miss like this, it makes the next one more appealing… No matter what the direction, if an actor’s interpretation is wrong, it throws the show. We all shared in the blame, but for the most part it was mine.” John Frankenheimer took issue, insisting he deserved the blame, too.

Actor Gilbert Roland, like most actors, got a little fed up on the scripts submitted him but he did something about it. In December of 1957, he wrote an original story, “The Bernal Sierra Story,” and sold it to Revue for an episode of Wagon Train. Roland played the title role. About the same he also penned a bullfight story, “Blood On the Horns,” a biography of his father who was a real-life bullfighter. After watching “The Death of Manolete,” however, Roland was inspired to sell the story for theatrical filming. “I knew Manolete very well,” Roland later remarked. “After seeing the Playhouse 90 on television, there was nothing you could do except take a couple of drinks of tequila and hope they will do his life story some day. His characterization was done badly. Manolete was never in agony in real life. He had dignity and courage. He never went around weeping like in the television play on Playhouse 90. He was quite an hombre. He died at 29, leaving $4,000,000. In Mexico and Spain they were incensed about it, after reading about the TV version, because he was a national institution there… I didn’t like the way the character was portrayed. It wasn’t sincere. It wasn’t the way I would play the character.”

Peter Kortner, the associate producer, once identified with Hallmark Hall of Fame and Studio One, felt drama, not comedy, was in high favor with the home viewers and substantially corroborated by the mail reaction, sponsor satisfaction and the consistent rating level. According to an interoffice memo, his estimates claim the best of last season’s Playhouse 90 was “The Last Clear Chance” and “Nightmare: Ground Zero.” When it was brought to his attention that “Manolete” was roundly panned by the critics, Kortner excused, “I guess we are all wrong.” It was the original intention of producer Martin Manulis to lead off the season with Rod Serling’s “A Town Has Turned To Dust.” But when Manulis ran into client objection over the script and General Electric announced they were going to air their own bullfight story, Manulis made the decision to rush “The Death of Manolete” into production as the curtain raiser of the second season.

The production suffered from a number of technical errors. Van Heflin, the host, was obviously reading from a teleprompter -- he even suffers unexpected pauses during delivery. The shadow of the boom mike is projected on the floor when the camera points down at Carras and Manolete. The shadow of the mike is also seen on Manolete’s forehead during his dance with Tani Morena. The shadow of the mike is also seen on the youngster’s forehead as Manolete approaches the youth to teach him the craft of bullfighting. When Manolete escorts Doña Augustias to the balcony of his ranch to describe the arena, the sound of the heavy camera on the floorboards overtakes the sound of Manolete’s voice. The extras hired for various scenes in Spain and South America do not change costumes and an observant viewer would notice the colorful ones that stand out. Stock footage of crowds during the latter part of the episode are shown forward, backward and forward again.
Suzy Parker

One significant casting to make note. Ethel Winant, handling casting for Playhouse 90, took a dare when she cast Suzy Parker, a professional model who at the height of her popularity was known as the most photographed woman in the world, decided to forsake her cover girl profession to become an actress and was all smiles to play the role of Tani Morena in this broadcast. Prior to Playhouse 90, Parker appeared on camera twice and both times with a speaking role consisting of only one sentence. (It was rumored she was paid $1,000 a word for her line, “Drunk? He’s mad!” on Producer’s Showcase.) Without any acting background, and just before the release of her first film, Kiss Them for Me, but in the wake of a conscientious buildup for a new “star,” Parker appeared in “The Death of Manolete” and was mercilessly panned by critics. There was a feeling that this helped prejudice some critics against her. Obviously her appearance was by arrangement of 20th Century-Fox, which released the movie weeks after this telecast, and mentioned verbally during the closing credits. Some movie studios reasoned against television appearances by new film faces in fear they lose their “special” flavor, appearing on the free medium in competition to the theatres. Those who know their television trivia know this has happened many times including Bernadine (1957), Pat Boone’s motion-picture that once opened on a saturation basis in an area the same night that Boone appeared on television. It was clearly a case of competing with himself.

“If we can develop attractive personalities, who can be seen only in the theatres, we’re one ahead,” runs the argument. In this connection, Warner Bros. stopped Gwen Verdon from making a guest appearance on the Dinah Shore show where she was scheduled to do a dance routine from Damn Yankee. Warners owned the property and planed to make a film of it starring Verdon. The studio didn’t like the idea of showcasing the routine on television prior to the start of the picture.

When Tony Curtis was once asked about the bullfight story for G.E. Theater and the Playhouse 90 version, the actor remarked: “What about ‘The Death of Manolete’? Is that spontaneity? I did a bullfight story for G.E. last season. It was liked. It was not a great story, but at least it was consistent, and we took our time. We shouldn’t make the mistake of under-estimating our audiences.”

Initial Telecast: September 12, 1957
Teleplay by Barnaby Conrad and Paul Monash, based on Conrad’s forthcoming novel of the same name.
Cast: Carlos Allen (the singer); Margarita Allen (the dancer); Edward Colmans (the eye specialist); Barnaby Conrad (the narrator); Ray Danton (Antonio); Fernando Elizondo (the first Torero); Paul Lambert (the radio announcer); Caren Lenay (Elvira); Robert Middleton (Perea); Esther Minciotti (Doña Augustias);  Silvio Minciotti (Cayango); Jack Palance (Manuel Rodriguez Manolete); Suzy Parker (Tani Morena); Nehemiah Persoff (Carras); Felipe Turich (Mateo); Ricky Vera (Perico); and H.M. Wynant (Marquez).

Production Credits
Director: John Frankenheimer
Producer: Martin Manulis
Associate Producer: Peter Kortner
Story Editor: Del Reisman
Assistants to the Producer: Dominick Dunne and Russell Stoneham
Art Director: Walter Scott Herndon
Music Supervisor: Fred Steiner
Associate Director: James Clark
Set Decorator: Robert Nelson
Lighting Director: Edwin S. Hill
Technical Director: Brooks Graham
Suzy Parker’s clothes were custom designed by Don Loper of Beverly Hills.