DVD: Evening Primrose (1966)

December 9, 2010 | By

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Film: Very Good / DVD Transfer: Very Good / DVD Extras: Excellent

Label: E1/Archive of American Television / Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: October 26, 2010

Genre: Musical / Horror / TV Anthology

Synopsis: A poet decides to live in the hidden areas of a large NYC department store, but finds his peace interrupted by a secret society, and a beautiful ingenue.

Special Features:  Interview with director Paul Bogart (33:59) / Audio interview with actress Charmian Carr / Unused test footage with Anthony Perkins in Macy’s department store (21:31) / 28-page booklet

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Review:

“You can see where the thrust of the show doesn’t have the room to expand. On the other hand, you will hear some of the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard in your life.” – Evening Primrose’s director, Paul Bogart

So the story goes, screenwriter & playwright James Goldman (The Lion in Winter) needed a bigger apartment to house his wife and upcoming baby, and along with lyricist & composer Stephen Sondheim, the two decided to collaborate on a mini-musical version of John Collier’s tale “Evening Primrose,” about a naïve poet who decides to sever all ties with the outside world and live in the bowels of a large department store, where he can write and live off the goods and wares for the rest of his life.

The network outlet for their efforts was ABC Stage 67, a valiant attempt to rekindle an interest in the kind of high-quality live shows – musicals, dramas, dance, etc. – that dominated the fifties. The ambitious new series reportedly had creative highs and lows, and didn’t return for a second season.

Unlike most network shows that were shot on film, Stage 67 was videotaped, and not unlike the fifties teleplays the show emulated, episodes vanished from circulation; apparently whatever archival copies existed weren’t put into circulation, either due to rights, or perhaps their poorer video quality, compared to film prints.

It’s impossible to say whether Primrose is indicative of what survives of the series’ other episodes, but Primrose‘s original 2” colour master tapes vanished, and the only extant archival dubs are black & white kinescope and a ¾” video dub.

The series’ failure – ABC lost $5 million – ensured it was buried and forgotten, and whether the colour masters were lost, destroyed or erased, the lack of colour episodes may also have doomed the series’ from a second life as some kind of limited prestige syndication run. (As stated in the DVD booklet liner notes, Primrose was sold for two rebroadcasts that never happened after its one-time airing in 1966.)

Of the 26 Studio 67 episodes, the most sought-after (unsurprisingly) was Primrose, largely because of Sondheim’s music (which enjoyed an afterlife in recordings, CD collections, cabaret acts, and an October 2010 revival); the creepy, Twilight Zone-ish Collier story; and the two stars: as the poet, Anthony Perkins had perhaps one of his last opportunities to indulge in the kind of live theatrical song & drama that preceded his film career and the subsequent typecasting of a weirdo due to Psycho; and Charmian Carr, who played the love interest, retired from acting soon after, stepping away from a stellar career that began with The Sound of Music (1965).

According to the Carr interview on the DVD, when members of a message board for live TV shows were queried about which live musical show they’d like to see liberated to DVD, the most popular title was Primrose, and so the producers behind the Archive of American Television series set their sights on this lost episode that could only be seen at the Paley Center for Media, or in bootleg copies from a kinescope (parts of which were extracted on YouTube a few years ago).

The first sense that the teleplay might make it to DVD began when Kritzerland released a soundtrack album containing the playback music, live performances, plus rare underscore cues on back in 2008.

Then Carr was interviewed by phone in early 2009 for a DVD that was announced for release… and then postponed until an October 2010 date, which thankfully happened without a hitch.

Musically, the episode is as affecting as the album, and both stars perform the songs with a strong conviction needed to sell what’s essentially a preposterous story.

Poet Charles Snell (Perkins) scopes out the Stern Bros. department store and hides behind the drapes of a display until the staff has left for the day, and the night watchman has done his rounds.

Emerging into the dimly lit store, he sings of his joy in being free to write to his heart’s content, live off food and snacks, change clothes at whim, and express himself through the poetry the outside world is utterly disinterested in supporting and celebrating. To sever his ties with the world, he pointedly destroyed all of his (bad) writings so any words scribbled in the store are part of his rebirth.

When the night watchman suddenly returns (note to Charles Snell: don’t sing in an empty store), Charles pretends to be a mannequin, and discovers an older man, Rosco (Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ Larry Gates) doing the same trick. Soon the poet is introduced to a secret society of elders who’ve been hiding and living in the store for decades – one of several communities that exist in other large department stores in New York City.

Led my Mrs. Munday (Dorothy Stickney), Charles is quickly smitten by her young maid Ella (Carr), and the two begin a forbidden romance. Love and touching are verboten, and the two young ones realize theyt’re trapped in a creaky society run by benevolent elders with a simple agenda: maintain the status quo.

Talking to the night watchman, much like engaging in romance, is punishable by a visitation by the Dark Men, a murky band of rogue morticians who are feared yet summoned by the communities to remove thieves and rule breakers, and transform them into… something.

Unlike the elders, Ella was a child who lost her mother and awoke one night in the darkened store. She was going to be released, but Mrs. Munday wanted a maid, and Ella spent the next 13 years as her virtual slave, acquiescing her every wish and forced to tolerate brutal insults. Through her romance with Charles, Ella begins to remember the beauty that still thrives outside, among the living – daylight, snow, wind – and during a planned dance for the society, the two conspire to escape.

SPOLIER ALERT

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Their plan (told through singing) is overheard by the entire community through the still-active (?) intercom system, and although they manage to escape the Dark Men and hide in a shipping van prepped for the next day’s trip to a warehouse, the morning yields the two… standing as mannequins… in a display window, dressed up as bride and groom… together in death.

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END OF SPOILER

This grim tale no doubt tickled Sondheim’s interest in dark subject matter – the composer would later create the musical Sweeney Todd – and the songs are generally superb. “If You Can Find Me, I’m Here” is hokey but is meant to satirize Charles’ naïveté as he dances about the store, giddy about essentially living in a closet and writing words no one will ever hear.

“I Remember” is the teleplay and score’s highpoint because it immediately creates sympathy for the otherwise mousy Ella, and Carr’s entire vocal performance is filmed in one take – emphasizing her eyes and reactive face.

The signature tune, “Take Me to the World” is the song that dooms the couple – its libretto is what alerts the elders to their escape plan – whereas “When” is a pre-recorded duet director Paul Bogart actually uses as underscore, allowing him to edit a vignette of Perkins playing bridge with the creaky elders, while his mind screams for Ella’s attention and affection as she obediently, silently, serves the group their tea.

There’s a 1947 episode of the half-hour radio series Escape (starring Elliot Lewis, Paul Frees and Pat Lowry) that survives, and provides some contrast in the way the story and its subject matter were handled by different writers for different mediums.

Sondheim’s score mandates visuals: you need to see the department store location, used for the opening montage of Charles sneaking into store, his “If You Can Find Me, I’m Here” rendition, as well as the end chase from the Dark Men. The music actually covers key scenes in the story, but it also lays bare major holes of illogic that could’ve been explained and dramatized in a longer 90 min. musical-thriller.

The radio show opts for bookend vignettes that rise from the pages of Charles’ prose. Basically, a blue-collar wife tells her bluer collar husband of the strange notes written on a sheet of fresh stationary paper she just purchased from “Bracy’s” department store, and as she reads thye words of Charles Snell, the drama unfolds. Most of the story is identical, except Ella’s background has her immediately kept by the elders fearing she’d tell the world of their existence; Charles is inferred to be older, and his romance is depicted as a crush; the character of Rosco is inferred to be secretly in love with Ella; and the couple plan their escape the night of a play to be attended by the society, as well as members from other department stores.

Moreover, Charles is initially obedient and proud of his rising status and freedom among the group, and only considers an escape when he too becomes bored with the society and its dingy existence. Rosco, in fact, is his friend and confidant – a facet excised in the Sondheim version – and betrays Charles by spilling the beans to Munday.

The identity and purpose of the Dark Men is clearly explained in the radio drama: Ella explains the elders tie up and leave the victims for the Dark Men who butcher them, leave the meat in the deli department, and transform the cadaver into a mannequin the staff will find and use someplace. Most of the mannequins in the store, as in other large department stores, are in fact dead people – detals essentially left to viewer imaginations via the teleplay’s last shot.

Where the Sondheim version concludes with a chase sequence (partially scored by a young David Shire (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) and that end shot, the radio drama has the blue collar wife realizing she saw the mannequins described by Charles in the stationary note – hammering home the horrible truth that’s he and Ella are now quite dead.

Unlike the teleplay, the radio show is about a naïve fool who’s forced to live among creepy folks that hide in forgotten areas of the department store, and his decision to make do with their forced lifestyle, whereas the teleplay presents a more fanciful, precious life that has the society members remaining frozen during the day, and moving about at night – which is ridiculous.

While descriptions of the teleplay’s story state the elders hide during the day and emerge at night, their onscreen introductions as pre-positioned mannequins in elaborate displays clearly indicate they’ve been there all day; there’s no way they could’ve slid into the displays during the daytime without the sales staff wondering ‘What the hell?’ and calling a floor manager. Ergo, the more one ponders the teleplay’s conceits, the more illogical it all becomes.

The flaws of the teleplay are more glaring because of the visual information that inevitably causes viewers to wonder how they eat, where they sleep, whether they remain ‘frozen’ all day in spite of hunger pains and the need to relieve, how the department staff decide to immediately use two new mannequins found that morning (or soon after), and why Charles and Ella just don’t hide from what’s clearly a small group of old people, smash a window at night or make a run for it during the daytime when the store is open.

A more interesting riff on department store mannequins exists in Rod Serling’s benevolent Twilight Zone teleplay “After Hours” (1960) where mannequins are allowed periodically to join the living world, and those that forget to return are ‘gently’ rounded up and brought back to the fold before morning.

Nevertheless, Primrose had enough of Collier’s creepy tale and Sondheim’s moving music to affect viewers, and it’s apparently the best-remembered teleplay from ABC’s otherwise long-forgotten series. The love story is formulaic – a stranger falls for the daughter or the kept and abused ingénue of a secret, quietly brutal society, and the couple plan an escape – but it largely works, and it’s to the credit of the cast, director, writer and composer that so much was pulled off in what was a low-budget TV production with strict time limits. (In the bonus interview with director Bogart, he recalls ignoring network badgering in order to get the final shots necessary for the finale while the next production was angrily waiting to set up up in the studio.)

E1’s DVD includes a surprisingly sharp black & white copy of the broadcast version, good mono sound, and several important extras that place the show in its historical context. The Paul Bogart interview has the retired, ninety-something directing (slowly) discussing his career, the episode’s production, the cast, and aspects of the show he admits are weak in spite of the strong performances and music.

The phone interview with Charmian Carr covers her brief but significant acting career, and consists of gracious replies to a steady stream of questions clearly designed to extract as much information for historical record. Carr recalls her cast, the director, producer John Houseman (The Bad and the Beautiful), Sondheim’s tricky, arching high notes in “I Remember,” her decision to retire after 2 credits , and her career as an interior decorator with several name clients.

The 28-page booklet recaps some of the interview material and expands on some further background details of ABC’s highly publicized attempt to recapture the golden age of quality television, and there’s rare unused colour 16mm film footage of the aborted shoot at Macy’s department store that was initially set for the prime location before the store had second thoughts, and the production switched to the Stern Brothers department store (later demolished in 1969).

Evening Primrose is imperfect, but as an hour of grim fantasy, it’s a notable production that’s finally been rescued from oblivion.

The Archive of American Television includes Evening Primrose (1967), The Leonard Bernstein Omnibus, Orson Welles’ King Lear (1953), Studio One Anthology, and What Makes Sammy Run (1959)..

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© 2010 Mark R. Hasan

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Related links:

CD: Evening Primrose (1966)

DVD / Film:  Studio One:  Sentence of Death (1953) / Night America Trembled, The (1957) —  What Makes Sammy Run (1959)

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Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD / Film:  Bad and the Beautiful, The (1952) — Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) — Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The (1974)

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External References:

IMDB Archival TV Site — Soundtrack AlbumComposer Filmography

Amazon.ca: Evening Primrose

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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