This 1957 Playhouse 90 production by John (Seconds, The Manchurian Candidate) Frankenheimer, establishes him as one of the most gifted American filmmakers of his time. He brilliantly drags us through the slop of showbiz nastiness in this harrowing tale of a brutal, mean-spirited comedian who destroys anyone who could possibly love him - anyone but his fans, whose adulation feeds his boundless self-love and the vigorous need to cut his friends, family and collaborators down to size, to ribbons, to shreds.
The Comedian (1957) *****
Dir. John Frankenheimer
Starring: Mickey Rooney, Edmond O'Brien, Kim Hunter, Mel Tormé
Review By Greg Klymkiw
From a novella by Ernest (North by Northwest, Sweet Smell of Success) Lehman and powerfully adapted by Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone), The Comedian is, without question, one of the most harrowing dramatic show business exposes ever committed to film/tape/kinescope. It also happens to be a feature length television film broadcast on the immortal Playhouse 90 anthology series in 1957.
Using everything at his disposal, Frankenheimer pulls off some kind of miracle. Bouncing from location to location, utilizing montage, a crackling pace to match the impeccable dialogue and playing, for all it's worth, the horrendous visual anchor of an oversized photo of the leering monster of the film's title, Frankenheimer is indeed a director demonstrating his natural gifts that, even then, seemed like the pinnacle of his powers, but were, indeed only the beginning. Marvelling at his use of everything at a filmmaker's disposal to tell this wrenching tale is to have an opportunity to see the sowing of seeds that eventually blossomed into some of the greatest films of the 1960s.
The opening sequence alone would be enough to knock you on your butt. We follow the frenzied rehearsal of a live comedy broadcast wherein the action cuts between the performance itself, the master control booth and behind-the-scenes action on the floor and in the nearby production offices. The expert screenwriting establishes virtually everything that needs to be established and even provides a perfect spin-around to launch us from this highly charged first act into the next. Somehow, it's even more astounding that within a live TV drama, Frankenheimer grasps the challenges of Rod Serling's brilliant script and actually recreates the making of a live TV extravaganza within.
Now, seriously, ladies and gentlemen: How cool is that?
Mickey Rooney plays Sammy Hogarth, a hugely popular TV comic making the leap from a half-hour show to a full 90-minute special. Hogarth demands more than perfection from his collaborators, he demands worship. He is, without question, one of the most grotesque, repugnant characters in 20th-century drama. Much of this is due to Rooney. His performance is truly a revelation. While I always admired his work as a child actor in the numerous Rooney-Garland musicals and his moving portrait of the wartime telegram delivery boy in The Human Comedy, nothing could have ever prepared me for his performance in this mean-spirited drama. Rooney’s hurricane-like command of every scene he’s in is so powerful that even when he’s off-screen, his influence over all the supporting characters is not only felt, but it’s as if he’s in the same room with them: poking, prodding, cajoling, haranguing and tearing strips off everyone’s back.
The people most susceptible to his nastiness are his long-time gag writer with a bad case of writer’s block (Edmond O’Brien, the revenge-bent everyman from the great noir D.O.A.) and his brother, a weak, whining simpleton - originally promised the job of producer, but now reduced to being Sammy’s slave - bearing the biggest brunt of the comic’s ire.
Playing Sammy’s brother is the legendary crooner Mel Tormé, whose career in movies was mostly reserved for second banana roles in musicals. Tormé is downright snivelling, so pathetically subservient to his older brother that we initially feel sorry for him, but his subsequent actions are so appalling that he ultimately appears as little more than a cretin. It’s a great performance and one can only wonder why we never saw more of him on the big screen in roles to rival this one.
Kim Hunter (Stella in Elia Kazan’s version of A Streetcar Named Desire and, lest we forget, Zira, the cute female chimp in Planet of the Apes) plays Tormé’s long-suffering wife, who is fed up with how pathetic her husband is and demands he stand up to Sammy. Like everyone in this drama, though, she eventually puts herself in an utterly degrading position to get what she wants.
Oh yeah, speaking of degrading, did I mention that Edmond O’Brien’s character is so desperate to drag himself out of his writer’s block that he plagiarises the unused work of a comedy writer who went off to war and died in battle? You see, this is not just the story of a man bent on destruction, but ultimately the story of an utter monster who turns everything and everyone around him into bottom-feeding, soul-bereft plankton. Curiously, The Comedian is based on work by Ernest Lehman that bears more than a passing resemblance to the author's nasty novella and feature film Sweet Smell of Success. At least that story had Tony Curtis’s charming (albeit sleazy) press agent Sidney Falco. Nobody, but nobody, has anything resembling charm in The Comedian. Interestingly, veteran character actor Whit Bissell delivers a great performance here as the sleazy gossip columnist Otis Elwell, a character from Lehman's Sweet Smell of Success.
As deeply dark and depressing as it was, and frankly still is, The Comedian, like so many live dramatic television broadcasts of the period, sizzled in terms of audience and critical response. Even the darker HBO and Showtime dramas pale in comparison to the sort of ratings commanded by The Comedian and other Playhouse 90 works. It's similar to how today's bozoffice grosses for theatrical features mean virtually nothing when adjusted for inflation. The Comedian represents the TRUE Golden Age of Television and Frankenheimer went on to direct features when movies mattered more than anything. As for the current state of the Boob Tube, there's nothing on television today that can even remotely come close - artistically AND commercially to The Comedian. Now you can see why.
"The Comedian" is included on the superb Criterion Collection box set entitled "The Golden Age of Television". My full review of this box set including individual reviews of several great television dramas for live television (including Frankenheimer's brilliant rendering of "Days of Wine and Roses") is available in my Colonial Report From The Dominion of Canada column at the cool UK film magazine "Electric Sheep - a deviant view of cinema". You can read the full piece HERE.