Saturday, November 28, 2009

"The Trap of Solid Gold" on ABC Stage 67


A couple of weeks ago I posted an entry titled The Name of This Blog, discussing the eponymous 1960 short story and its 1967 television adaptation. Here's what I wrote about the story itself:

"The Trap of Solid Gold" is MacDonald in Cheever country, without any of Cheever's moral ambiguities. It's a simple story of an ambitious young corporate executive and his family, and how the demands of keeping up appearances in order to impress the boss slowly eat away at the family's finances and, concurrently, the fabric of the marriage. Ben Weldon needs an expensive house in the suburbs, a country club membership, the ability and willingness to entertain frequently in his home, because that is what is expected in order to advance in the company. Already in debt, the Weldon's find that any crisis out of the ordinary locks them further and further into a "trap" they can never escape from. As MacDonald colorfully put it, "it's like being pecked to death by sparrows." It is a brutally realistic tale, marred by only one major flaw in logic, and the reader comes away with an admiration of MacDonald for the challenge he set for himself in making a riveting story out of such mundane subject matter. It also proved that JDM could step outside of the mystery and science fiction box and compete in the world of contemporary fiction, although this was certainly not the first time he did this.

I went on to write this about the subsequent television adaptation:

The ABC Stage 67 dramatization has never been officially released for home viewing or rebroadcast, to my knowledge. There was a rumor floating around once that ABC had erased the original masters (all 26 episodes were shot, for the most part, on videotape) and all that survived were black & white dupes housed in The Museum of Television and Radio. This doesn't jibe with the fact that the show's most famous episode, Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory," was rebroadcast several years ago by A&E, and in color. I've seen
unlicensed copies of episodes for sale on the Internet purporting to be in color, including "Trap," but I've never tried to order a copy. Hopefully the series will be re-released one day.

Well, I couldn't leave well-enough alone, and immediately after I'd posted that entry I began searching the Internet for a copy of the show. It didn't take long, and, for about $20 I had a DVD of the dramatization a couple of weeks later. I've watched it and I am ready to report.

I don't recall ever reading a review of this show, or hearing of JDM's reaction to it, but for an author who justifiably felt ill-used by Hollywood, the ABC Stage 67 adaptation is faithfully retold, capturing both the narrative and the voice of MacDonald. Scripted by Ellen M. Violett, I can't imagine JDM having much to find fault with.

He certainly wouldn't have objected to the casting. Cliff Robertson, one of the great television actors of all time, played the lead role of Ben Weldon, and Dina Merrill, who Robertson married two weeks before this show aired, played his wife Ginny. They are both perfect in their parts as a young suburban couple trying to raise a family. Robertson especially communicates the slowly-dawning sense of dread as he realizes he's being sucked deeper and deeper into "the trap," and Merrill nicely compartmentalized her emotions until things become really desperate. Two of the supporting parts are real standouts. Bernard Hughes, a longtime veteran of television and film, is delightfully condescending as the small town banker Lathrop Hyde, taking great glee in refusing to extend credit to the Weldons. Relative newcomer Dustin Hoffman adapts to the part of accountant J.J. Semmins -- a much older character in the story -- with great gusto, and he really seems to be enjoying himself.

Violett's adaptation retains a surprising number of scenes from the story, including the night out with a client, the death of Ben's mother, and the subsequent scene with her housemate Geraldine Davis. The part of Ed Bartlett (played by John Baragrey) is expanded in order to compress some of the background scenes, turning him into a neighbor as well as Ben's direct superior. The scenes with Hyde and Semmins are both taken nearly verbatim from the story, albeit in a truncated form. There is a very nice scene, added by Violett, where Ginny admits to a friend that she would steal a tip off of a restaurant table if she were alone, only to break down in tears. The crisis of Chris Weldon's broken arm gets moved to later in the tale in order to provide a nice tipping point.

The dramatization doesn't quite convey the gravity of the story, however the attempt to do so in the confines of a 53-minute teleplay is commendable. There were no wholesale changes in plot or character, and the mood of steady sinking despair is well drawn, albeit with less intensity than in the story. It was a nice surprise to see such a respectful, well-thought-out attempt to dramatize MacDonald's story.

Recorded in New York rather than Hollywood, the Stage 67 dramatization uses a combination of both video tape and film, with the film portions reserved for the few outdoor scenes that are staged. The taped portions have the look and feel of a live broadcast, and there is even a nearly-flubbed line or two. The copy I obtained was, happily, in color, so the rumor cited above has proven to be false. The opening Stage 67 intro, as well as all of the commercials, are missing. I found this show by doing a bit of Googling, and it didn't take me long. I recommend seeing it as an example of what television could do with MacDonald when it showed the proper care and respect for the source material.






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