Monday, August 8, 2016

Summer of Angst: Family Theater: The Hill (March 1951)

OK, Deaners (is there a better term for James Dean fans? If so, don't tell me; let me have this one at least for now), we spent the previous two installments of the Summer of Angst series examining the first two clips on "The Lost Television Legacy of James Dean": a pair of Pepsi commercials. Enough of that frivolity. It's time to move on to an episode of "Family Theater" called "The Hill," and from the get-go you should know this series is a religious anthology.

The episode features a framing sequence of troops in the Korean War. Soon a chaplain arrives and tells the men something like, "Hey, you think this is rough, remember what happened to Jesus," and then tells them (and we see) the followers of Jesus between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

Naturally you might assume Dean is one of the troops, right?

Nope! We do see familiar faces like William Schallert and Roddy McDowall amongst the grunts, but the young Dean, in a bit of interesting casting, is the apostle John.

Dean gives an earnest, quiet performance, going for thoughtful and not showy. Yet he stands out for being so young and so...beardless.

Indeed, one of these apostles is not like the others...

Even noted character actor Gene Lockhart gets a big ol' beard as Matthew:

So not a lot of angst from our boy James Dean, but it's a tasteful production with loads of recognizable faces--folks like Joan Leslie, Regis Toomey, Leif Erickson, and Michael Ansara all make appearances.

But the big star, "Family Theater" reminds us, isn't any of these people, know, the big guy. And I don't mean Father Patrick Payton...or do I?

After the "Theater" portion of our program, Payton comes along to remind everyone to get their rosary beads and pray. I don't wish to offend Catholics nor anyone out there, but the good Father is no Bishop Sheen, and yet this wrap-up seems to go on and on. Again, I realize that for him, it's kind of the point, but artistically, it felt like forever.

This example of low-key, somewhat staid religious-themed early television is worth a look, but it's not something I would watch again. However, as I said, Dean's so doggone sensitive that he does make an impression, and fans should definitely catch this one.

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