Early TV was filled with play-like dramas, often attracting top stars to the new medium.
Sadly, many of these early works are lost to history. Still, some survive, and deserve to be enjoyed 50 and 60 years after they were made.
Check out these five interesting pieces:
(1) General Electric Theater: "Strange Witness" (March 23, 1958)
Directed by Herschel Daugherty (1910-1993), this melodrama stars Joan Crawford (circa 1906-1977), past 50, as a slutty trophy wife who seeks to leave her cynical husband (John McIntire, 1907-1991) for her latest boy-toy/"skillful parasite" (Tom Tryon, 1926-1991). When the boy-toy impulsively murders the husband, the titular witness, an old pal of the family's (Sidney Blackmer, 1895-1973) happens to drop by — his blindness the only thing keeping him from seeing the dead body in the room.
Crawford is stellar in this.
(2) General Electric Theater: "The Cold Touch" (April 13, 1958)
Don Weis (1922-2000) directed this twisty drama about a sparring married couple (Bette Davis, 1908-1989; Forrest Tucker (1919-1986) traveling in Hong Kong who are confronted by a gangster (Leif Erickson, 1911-1986) who kidnaps the husband, attempting to force the wife to pretend he's her husband in order to get him back into the U.S. Unfortunately, she's no simpering wifey, which throws a real wrench into the works. Aside from a top-notch Bette Davis performance, look for James Hong (b. 1929) of Seinfeld "5, 10 minutes" fame as a bellboy.
(3) Ford Television Theatre: "Footnote on a Doll" (April 24, 1957)
Another Bette Davis episode, this one delightfully casts the acting legend as former First Lady Dolley Madison (1768-1849), who returns to D.C., where she is invited to a tea party by a woman (a seethingly nasty Natalie Schafer, 1900-1991) whose husband lost an ambassadorship on Dolley's advice. Seeking revenge, the woman invites Dolley's alcoholic son (John Hudson, 1919-1996) to the event in order to try to embarrass her as the woman had been embarrassed by her husband being passed over.
(4) Ford Television Theatre: "Strange Disappearance"
This juicy thriller is about a producer (Stephen McNally, ) whose hopes are riding on his next production, but his wife (June Vincent, 1920-2008) accuses him of sleeping with the show's star (Peggy Knudsen, 1923-1980). When the wife vanishes, is there more than one conclusion to draw? Interestingly, it was directed by Arthur Hiller (1923-2016), who went on to direct The Americanization of Emily (1964), Love Story (1970) and Making Love (1982).
(5) Robert Montgomery Presents: Harvest (November 23, 1953)
James Dean (1931-1955), in an early role, plays the lovestruck son of a farming family whose wheat crop is catastropically lost. He becomes torn between his duties and his desires, a perfect role for the young, emerging emo Method actor. He's perfection. As good as he is, it's also a chance to watch former silent star Dorothy Gish (1898-1968) as his mother, who tries to keep the brood together. Rebecca Welles (1928-2017), who plays Dean's love interest — and who was married to director Don Weis (see above) in real life, just passed away this year. "Harvest" director James Sheldon (1920-2016) — the only person ever to direct Dean more than once — died last year. First a radio director, he had an expansive 3o-year career of directing in TV; his talent and vision are on display here just as surely as Dean'sis.