The Comedian (1957)

The first of two John Frankenheimer productions that close off the Golden Age of Hollywood set, and the third written by Rod Serling, though here he was adapting a story by Ernest Lehman. The latter, of course, also gave us Sweet Smell of Success, inspired by his own days of digging up dirt for 1930s gossip columnists, so it kind of makes sense that the plot of this hinges on a similar situation… The titular comedian, Sammy Hogarth, is played by Mickey Rooney, who goes above and beyond the call of duty, possibly even that of the script, to present him as a complete shit, the embodiment of obnoxiousness with no redeeming features except his ability to win audiences. Just two days out from a big live TV performance, things are falling flat, and he demands new material from his chief writer, Al Pearson. The latter fears he really is as washed up as Hogarth mocks him for being, and, bereft of his own ideas, steals someone else’s… but Hogarth’s younger brother, Lester, finds out, and, tired of being the butt of Sammy’s jokes on stage and viciousness off it, threatens to let certain other people know. All of this is played at quite high volume, especially by Rooney who is quite amazing in his ability to make this ghastly individual compelling to watch instead of merely repellent, though Edmond O’Brien acquits himself well as Pearson, who is in some respects the real main role in the drama; and again I was blown away by the thought of all this being done live to air, no retakes, no pre-recording… there is a quite astounding montage near the end of it summing up Hogarth’s show; as someone says in the show intro on the DVD, it would’ve taken three or four days to shoot the same thing for a film, but it’s live as well. I’ve seen Frankenheimer described as a master of live TV, and based even on this one example I can see why; however excessive it may sometimes get (especially without ad breaks to let you pause for breath), it’s technically way ahead of anything else in this set so far.

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