The fifth, and penultimate, screening in our Classics on TV: Great American Playwrights season at BFI Southbank this month is of the 1986 Channel 4-PBS production of Clifford Odets’ play Rocket to the Moon, directed by John Jacobs (who is also credited with the 1958 BBC production of Strange Interlude from earlier in the season!) and featuring strong performances from Judy Davis and John Malkovich, as well as Connie Booth and Eli Wallach.
Book your ticket on the BFI website here for the 6.00pm screening on Tuesday 27 January 2015.
Born in 1906, Clifford Odets was a bit-part actor who joined the legendary Group Theatre for its first season in 1931. The ensemble, which included directors and writers as well as actors, was committed to developing a new technique of American acting founded on the teachings of the Russian director Constantin Stanislavsky. In a decade of productions, Group Theatre, whose members included Elia Kazan, Harold Clurman and Stella Adler, premiered many of the most significant inter-war American plays including Clifford Odets’ Broadway hit Golden Boy in 1937.
Kicking his heels as an understudy with Group Theatre, Odets began to write plays, the first of which to be produced was Waiting for Lefty in January 1935. Inspired by a taxi strike at the time, the play famously climaxes with an impassioned speech for the characters, and by extension the audience, to declare a strike. It rhetorical power, coupled with the direct simplicity that is possible in its staging, meant that it quickly became a favoured play for left-wing theatre troupes across the country.
Awake and Sing!, first produced a month after Waiting for Lefty, is a richly sympathetic portrait of an impoverished Jewish family in the Bronx, and Odets was soon lionised as a writer dealing unflinchingly with working-class politics during the Depression. Golden Boy, however, is a play that is more concerned with the conflict between personal integrity and material success. Then in 1938 Rocket to the Moon was widely seen as a retreat from political engagement, prompting the playwright George S. Kaufman to quip, ‘Odets, where is thy sting?’
By the time that Rocket to the Moon reached Broadway, Odets had been tempted to Hollywood, although he continued to write plays, including Clash by Night staged in 1941. Out west he worked uncredited on numerous scripts, including Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). He returned to Broadway with The Big Knife in 1949 and the 1950 hit The Country Girl, but his career declined after his co-operative appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in May 1952. At the time of his death a decade later he was writing scripts for NBC’s anthology drama series, The Richard Boone Show.
Odets on the small screen
Before the 1986 Channel 4 production of Rocket to the Moon, there were three realised productions of plays by Clifford Odets on British television – and one that was planned but that failed to reach the studio. In late January 1939, Radio Times trailed a production of Waiting for Lefty, which the writer known as ‘The Scanner’ promised would be screened on 17 February. It was clear that even at that stage there was a certain degree of nervousness about the idea:
There are six episodes which take place against the background of a strike meeting in the USA. The villain of the piece is Capitalism, played by a porcine individual called Henry Fatt. Even if this leads you to expect a dreary political play, make a point of watching it on television, for it will probably be your only chance of seeing it; official permission has been withheld for performing Waiting for Lefty publicly on the English stage. You may disagree violently with the heavy ‘Left’ bias of the play; but producer Eric Crozier hopes you will forget politics and consider Waiting for Lefty purely as an experiment in drama. (‘Intelligent “Rubber-necks”‘, 27 January 1939, p. 16)
It was not to be. Although the play had been performed by the left-wing British companies Rebel Players and Unity Theatre, a West End production had been refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. Too late to prevent the Radio Times article, BBC Television also withdrew the production and it was replaced in the schedules by Hugh Griffith’s comedy Youth at the Helm.
In the 1950s, British television presented three productions of plays by Odets, the first of which was a BBC Television broadcast of the playwright’s boxing drama Golden Boy on 8 November 1953. Kenneth Haigh (later to create the role of Jimmy Porter in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger) made his television debut as Joe Bonaparte under director Julian Amyes. In Radio Times Peter Forster’s comment on Odets’ play could equally apply to Rocket to the Moon:
People in an Odets play are well-meaning, usually sincere in any aspirations they may have, yet knocked around by a fate as rough and ruthless as any invoked by the Greek drama. But Odets is a New York dramatist, and his work also reflects both the toughness and also the sentimentality which are the two sides of that city’s dramatic coinage. (‘Boxing, beauty and the war’, 6 November 1953, p. 14)
On 30 December 1958 Associated-Rediffusion contributed The Big Knife to the Play of the Week strand. Patrick McGoohan took the central role of Charles Castle, an actor who has compromised his artistic beliefs by the seduction of Hollywood. The following year BBC Television produced Clash by Night with Sam Wanamaker and Patricia Neal, shown on 7 July 1959. The television director of this production, like Rocket to the Moon three decades later, was John Jacobs. No archive copy is known to exist of any of these three productions from the 1950s.
Rocket to the Moon
Odets’ witty and thoughtful play Rocket to the Moon is set in a New York dental office during a blisteringly hot summer in the late 1930s. The dentist Ben Stark (played by John Malkovich) is a good and generous man, sharing his offices with colleagues who are in no position to pay him rent. There is tension between him and his unhappy wife Belle (Connie Booth), who is somewhat broken by the experience of losing a baby at birth a few years earlier. Belle is naturally suspicious of Ben’s new secretary Cleo Singer (Judy Davis), a young, beautiful woman who prefers to go without stockings and wears more make-up than Belle thinks appropriate. Davis is pitch perfect in the role of naïve but spirited young woman. Belle is right to be suspicious: Cleo attracts the interest of her husband, but also that of her father, Mr Prince (Eli Wallach) – pictured above with Malkovich – who despairs of the dreariness of his son-in-law’s life and encourages him to ‘take a rocket to the moon – explode!’ The focus of this intense production gradually shifts from Ben’s mid-life crisis to Cleo’s burgeoning self-realisation, and the play offers us telling glimpses of Depression-era America.
The production was produced in the UK and reflects the interest of Channel 4 in its early years (this was less than four years after its debut) to produce high-quality performance for the screen. In this case, a co-production deal with public television in New York ensured the budget to attract the high-calibre cast to what was one of the last major broadcasts of a theatre play to be recorded with multiple cameras in a studio.
The production was shown first in America and then by Channel 4 on Thursday 4 September 1986 (9.30-11.35pm). Mark Lawson, writing in The Sunday Times, was impressed:
‘…the play has none of the proscenium archness of many theatre-to-screen adaptations and it possesses an intensity which seems set to melt the glass. In a jewel-box crop of actors, John Malkovich plays Ben Stark, the dentist, Judy Davis his flossy hygenist and Connie Booth the wronged wife. The play has its fortune cookie moments but, at its best, establishes Odets as a lower-key Eugene O’Neill and this work as a shorter, jauntier day trip into night’ (‘Thursday’, The Sunday Times, 31 August 1986, p. 44).
Read here a long review from a slightly less impressed critic, John J. O’Connor, writing in The New York Times, who laments the lack of profundity in the play, but concedes that it contained some fine performances and ‘bittersweet observations’ (‘Odets’s Rocket to the Moon on 13′, The New York Times, 5 May 1986).
Details about the final screening in the series – the 1988 BBC-WNET production of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1930 comedy Once in a Lifetime about three down-on-their-luck vaudeville performers who try their luck in Hollywood – can be read here.