Friday, August 24, 2012

Something for an Empty Briefcase (NBC, 7/17/53)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The “feature” was a half-hour episode of the Campbell’s SoundStage (that spelling, with a capital letter in the middle of a compound word, anticipates the nomenclature of computer programs by at least three decades!) drama anthology from July 17, 1953 called “Something for an Empty Briefcase,” notable mainly for the identity of the male lead: James Dean. As I’ve already mentioned in these pages, it seems bizarre to me that no one has ever sought to do a full inventory of all of James Dean’s TV appearances, collect them and make them available in a single package; instead probably some of them have been totally lost, while others have drifted into the public domain and been made available piecemeal (this and the 1957 documentary The James Dean Story seem to have been the only Dean items that have made it to; virtually everything else that comes up when you search the site for “James Dean” is rock bands doing tribute songs about him). Dean’s death at age 24 was a real tragedy, but he did leave behind considerably more work than just three starring films and it’s a cultural tragedy that it’s been so hard to see so much of it.

The show is introduced by a narrator that recommends that in addition to buying Campbell’s soup, you should also buy the book Joe (the Dean character) purchased to put in his briefcase — and given the heavy-duty religiosity of the period (this show aired just one year before the U.S. government, eager to define itself as “God-fearing” in opposition not only to communism but “Godless Communism,” defaced our coins and currency with “in God we trust” and defaced the Pledge of Allegiance with “under God” — and yes, I do resent that for all but a few months of my life my country has told me that I can’t be fully a part of its polity unless I subscribe to a belief in God, and the monotheistic Abrahamic “sky god,” as Gore Vidal called it, at that) it’s no surprise that the book turns out to be the Bible. Directed by Don Medford (whom I’d heard of) based on a script by S. Lee Pogostin (whom I hadn’t), “Something for an Empty Briefcase” casts Dean as Joe, a thief recently released from a two-year prison sentence for petty larceny. He sees a man walking down the street carrying a briefcase, and instantly the briefcase becomes a symbol for Joe of the kind of non-criminal life he’d rather lead — only he’s broke (he only has $1.37 to his name) and his old pal Mickey (Don Hanmer) is trying to get him to do the proverbial “one last job” for their former criminal boss, Sloane (Robert Middleton, looking surprisingly different from the way he’d been made up in his role on the right side of the law as the title character in the 1959 Columbia TV pilot The Fat Man).

Desperate to get enough money to buy a briefcase, Joe makes an inept attempt to hold up Noli (Susan Douglas) — she’s innocent and guileless enough to believe his story about needing her money for a sick mother — but when a motorcycle cop (Pete Gumeny) drives by the site of the holdup (a construction site with a sign reading “Century Construction Company” — I joked that they build only one building every hundred years) Joe makes it look like he and Noli are a couple and are just hanging out together (at 2 a.m.!) talking. Joe is astonished by Noli because she’s literally a totally different sort of person from anyone he’s ever known before — she’s in New York City to study dance and is willing to live an economically poor life to make sure she has money for her lessons; when he questions why she wants such an odd ambition for her life, she calls him a “Philistine.” Later he comes to her apartment (he got her address when she gave it to the cop that had stopped them earlier) and she lends him a dictionary until he can buy one on his own. She also yields to his diffident advances — which makes the story seem like an eerie presentiment of that case a few years ago in which a woman calmed down a multiple murderer by reading to him from Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life. Later he wins the money to buy his briefcase by hustling his friend Mickey at pool (as William K. Everson pointed out in his book The Detective in Film, pool halls had been identified with movie criminals ever since D. W. Griffith made what was virtually the first gangster movie, The Musketeers of Pig Alley, in 1912) and buys not only a briefcase and a dictionary but a Bible as well, only he’s confronted in his apartment by Sloane, who insists he do the crime he has planned for that night or else. Joe’s moral dilemma gets even worse when he finds out that the crime is a series of robberies, and the first one is targeting a drugstore where Joe and Noli had planned to meet on a date.

Sloane beats the shit out of Joe to get him to participate in the robberies (hurting him so badly as to render him pretty useless even if he changed his mind and did join Sloane and Mickey in the crimes!) and then the two of them abandon him. He and Noli join each other and she nurses him back to health while they read the Bible together. It’s certainly ironic that Dean is shown here doing a Biblical allegory two years before he became a movie star in East of Eden, another Biblical allegory, and while he’s still unformed as an actor (he alternates between speaking in a normal tone of voice and adopting the Brando-esque mumble he used through much of Eden and, less so, in his two subsequent films) one thing that’s immediately impressive about him is his physical control of his body. Indeed, though it’s Susan Douglas that’s supposed to be playing a dancer, it’s Dean, with his extraordinarily fluid movements (his body language gives more of his performance than either his voice or his gestures), that looks more like one. The other noteworthy aspect of “Something for an Empty Briefcase” is that it indicates how at least some of 1950’s TV had genuine intellectual aspirations: it’s a show that grapples with Big Issues of morality and faith, and while its presentation of them approaches silliness and sometimes goes over, it’s a marvelous attempt and way beyond virtually anything being done in TV, especially commercial TV, today!