Televising Film Stardom in the 1950s

By Becker, Christine | Framework, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Televising Film Stardom in the 1950s


Becker, Christine, Framework


During a particular two-week period in April 1955, a television viewer could sit in her living room and watch Ronald Reagan hosting General Electric Theater (CBS, US, 1953-62) and presenting Jimmy Stewart in his small screen acting debut, James Mason hosting Lux Video Theater (NBC, US, 1954-57) and introducing Claire Trevor as guest star, Gary Merrill starring in the dramatic series Justice (NBC, US, 1954-56), Groucho Marx hosting You Bet Your Life (NBC, US, 1950-61), Lon Chaney, Jr. unmasked on Masquerade Party (ABC, NBC & CBS, US, 1952-60), Claudette Colbert featured on Climax (CBS, US, 1954-58), James Cagney touting his new film on The Ed Sullivan Show (CBS, US, 1948-71), Charles Boyer acting on Four Star Playhouse (CBS, US, 1952-56), Ray Milland starring in The Ray Milland Show (CBS, US, 1953-55), Ann Sothern featured in Private secretary (CBS, US, 1953-57), Rock Hudson and Cornel Wilde guest-starring on Lucille Ball's I Love Lucy (CBS, US, 1951-61), and Judy Holliday and Frank Sinatra performing in the special Kaleidoscope (NBC, US, 1955).1 The sheer quantity of film star names evident here is striking. It is commonly assumed that only dethroned film stars would ever consent to appear on television, but the wide range of stars listed above certainly complicates this hypothesis and raises myriad questions. What industrial circumstances made possible this substantial marriage between Hollywood film talent and television programming in TV's first commercial decade, and how did early television present this plethora of film talent, from die character actor to the reigning star? What can we learn about concepts of stardom by closely analyzing the activities of film stars at the discrete historical moment when television began as a mass medium, borrowing programming formats, corporate methods, and talent from film, as well as radio and theater, while simultaneously trying to forge a unique institutional and cultural identity?

This essay explores answers to these questions, first by briefly explicating the industrial circumstances that drove a substantial number of film actors to television in the 1950s. With this section I hope to establish two central points: first, that despite an avowed stigma attached to film stars appearing on television, a significant number did appear on the infant medium; and second, that television's presentations of these stars, along with the publicity discourse that surrounded them, helped to expose and even alter the parameters of the filmic star system as it was developed to that point, an aspect which audiences surely perceived. The second half of the essay will supplement these broader ideas with an analysis of a television program called Mr. Adams and Eve, a sitcom that aired on CBS from 1957 to 1958, as this show both literally and narratively presented the scenario of the film star on 1950s television. The comedy featured former Warner Bros, film star and thenindependent film director Ida Lupino as Eve Drake, a glamorous, if predictably flighty, movie star actively working in Hollywood alongside her spouse, Howard Adams, played by Lupino's real-life husband Howard Duff. Through analysis of this show, I hope to illustrate that while in certain ways, and especially for the late 1950s, Mr. Adams and Eve was anomalous as a domestic suburban sitcom, the show's themes and execution were actually indicative of an awareness of the period's shifting paradigms of stardom, owing to the presence of numerous film stars on fifties television.

"Whole Constellations Gleam": The Increasing Visibility of Film Stars on Television

A number of film stars completely avoided television in its first commercial decade, with the exception of appearances outside the scope of their control, such as on news reports. Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth, Gary Grant, and Katharine Hepburn simply would not do television. Those with only a handful of appearances across the period include Marilyn Monroe, Rock Hudson, William Holden, and Gene Tierney. …

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