I have been staying in The Athenaeum on the Caltech campus. A faculty club for the university, it was completed in 1930 and is a gloriously sturdy and determinedly old-fashioned institution of English descent. Jackets and ties are expected for dinner (Albert Einstein dined here in the 1930s) and there is no chance of a cup of coffee before a 7am breakfast. Yet it has been a delight, as have so many aspects of my few days here. Leave aside that my screening and Friday seminar were (let’s say) modestly attended; otherwise I have had a great time. I fell in love with the thrills of freeway driving all over again (thanks to my generous host John Brewer for the loan of a car, and for much else) and not even getting stuck in hideous rush hour traffic took the shine off this. But I understand why apparently there is not as much collaboration between USC and UCLA as there might be when it can take you 90 minutes-plus to drive from one to the other. USC was where I showed Julius Caesar, while my reason for visiting UCLA was to view early television from the estimable UCLA Film & Television Archive.
My work on the Screen Plays research project has sharpened my interest in early television. I am increasingly intrigued by what we might learn from looking in parallel at say the first ten years of the cinema and the first decade of television. That’s a research project that needs an initial formulation, but in the meantime I am trying to see examples of early television when I can (and for these purposes, let’s define ‘early’ as before 1953). Last autumn BFI Southbank mounted a short season of surviving early television from Britain (of which there is precious little; see my posts here and here) and a visit to LA offered the chance to watch some American examples.
UCLA Film & Television Archive is a wonderful institution and accessing the viewing copies it holds is easy – and free! You start by getting a sense of the profile of the collections, and some notes on early television are here. Then you dive into the catalogue here – although like many such resources this can take a bit of getting used to. Working remotely for a couple of hours, I identified a group of programmes made between 1948 and 1950 and requested them by e-mail. Within twenty-four hours (it can take longer) they were available for me to view on the UCLA campus. Many thanks to Marc Quigley there for such great service.
As things turned out I had time to watch only four productions – extracts from an actuality and from a variety revue, and then what might be called an early drama-documentary in toto and also the whole of a magazine show about photography. What was striking (and coincidental) was that each in different ways exhibited a strong sense of self-consciousness of its status as an example of the new medium of television.
The Royal Wedding, 1947
The actuality was in fact excerpts from BBC coverage of the Royal Wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten on 20 November 1947. A telerecording on 16mm film of the outside broadcast coverage was flown across the Atlantic on the day of the wedding (almost certainly the first time this was done) and edited excerpts were broadcast by the US networks. That is the material held at UCLA and intriguingly it differs in key respects from that available on the BBC Archive web site.
The BBC describes the footage as follows:
Though the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten was broadcast live on BBC Radio, highlights were also screened on television later that day. This mute film, which shows the royal couple leaving Westminster Abbey and their appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, was originally broadcast with narration delivered live from the TV studios.
But the UCLA recording, which replicates many of the shots in the BBC Archive assembly, is very clearly a recording of live coverage with synchronous sound – and indeed it ends with an announcer saying the BBC television service will be back on air in the afternoon. It’s true that the wedding ceremony itself was broadcast only on the radio, but the live commentary covers the processions to and from the palace as well as the balcony appearance, plus some earlier shots (which are not in the BBC version) including announcer Leslie Mitchell on camera interviewing ‘an American sailor’ from the crowds as well as actress Valerie Hodgson. Could it be that these shots and the sound recording exist only at UCLA?
My second treat was a kinescope (that’s what they call telerecordings in the States) of the second edition of Welcome Abroad, a live variety show sponsored by the white good manufacturer Admiral. The series was broadcast by NBC on Sunday evenings from 3 October 1948, and appears to have been produced with three studio cameras. The main guests in this show (as apparently in the now-lost first) are Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis at a very early point in their careers, but I found the warm-up act more fascinating – the lugubrious comic Bob Burns.
Affecting a self-effacing hick persona, Burns had been a big hit on radio and had also enjoyed a film career, but this appears to have been his first appearance on television. Burns rambles on and on (you can see the show’s host – a band-leader dressed as an ‘Admiral’ – checking his watch in the background) about how radio saved his career thirteen years before (when he became a star on the Kraft Music Hall) and ‘tonight, this new thing has come along’. He speaks about being photographed for the medium and then, eventually, without having delivered any kind of a punchline, he intros the Graham Sisters who enter en pointe in tutus violins at the ready. Sadly (or not) the recording cuts out.
On to Photographic Horizons, ‘a production of the Dumont Television Network‘, which is revealed as an on-air camera club for photo enthusiasts. The broadcast date for this show, which marked the first year anniversary for the series, was 10 November 1948, and apparently an earlier one shown on 25 August that year also survives (in the collection of the Paley Center for Media). Hosted by Joe Costa with ‘pin-up girl’ Peggy Corday (here’s a link to a cover of Yank magazine from July 1944 featuring Ms Corday), this is a fascinating show in all kinds of ways, including its competition for viewers to take snapshots of the screen and send them in.
The main part of the show is devoted to a live demonstration (and extensive technical explanation) of Xerography which it is shown will take a photograph and develop it in 45 seconds (or just a little more). From the Wikipedia entry on Xerography I learn that (My picture above of all this comes from a truly wonderful 1949 Popular Science article Static pops pictures onto paper) was invented by Chester Carlson in 1938 but neither he nor the Haloid Corporation (who arranged the Photographic Horizons demo) could get anyone very excited about it until 1959 when it became the basis for the first Xerox photocopier. The rest is most certainly highly profitable history, and this edition of Photographic Horizons is a small footnote to that.
Finally, I watched another truly remarkable recording, which was an edition of NBC’s Eyewitness, which seems to have run for thirteen episodes in 1947-48. From the Archives of American Television site, I learn that this was ‘a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of television itself. Ben Grauer was the series’ host. The series was produced, written, and directed by Garry Simpson’ (and below is an embed of an interview with Mr Simpson recollecting the series).
The episode that I watched was shown on 26 February 1948 and it’s a run-through of the history of the invention of television from 1873 onwards. The first half of the show features very simple dramatic reconstructions (which I’m afraid do look risible now) of key moments, with actors in costume as the likes of Victor Nipkow and Boris Rosing, together with incomprehensible explanations of the variosu technical processes. Then the show introduces Vladimir Zworykin, a key scientist and head of research at RCA at the time, and he shows us the various kinds of tubes that have been used in cameras and receivers over the previous twenty years.
Again, I don’t for the moment have the time to do justice to this broadcast, and so I will just note that the history ignores any British contribution to the tale of television, and neither John Logie Baird nor the BBC (which had run a public service from 1936 to 1939 and then from 1946 on) receives so much as a name-check. Meanwhile, here is Gerry Simpson talking (rather slowly but fascinatingly) about the Eyewitness series as a whole…