The new release on DVD of a 1955 telecast of Rodgers and Hart’s A Connecticut Yankee is more of a curiosity than a must-have addition to your theatre shelf. There are highlights, of course – it is Rodgers and Hart after all! Any show that has “Thou Swell,” “My Heart Stood Still” and “To Keep My Love Alive” deserves a look or a listen from time to time.
The art of adapting a Broadway musical for another medium, another audience and another length is just that – an art. It can be done with great results. The recently released DVD of the Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation of Kiss Me, Kate which was the topic of this column a few weeks ago gave us a view of a very successful adaptation to the small screen. No such luck attended the effort to bring A Connecticut Yankee into living rooms on the night of March 12, 1955.
The end-of-program credits of the Yankee disc reveal just who gets the blame for the ham-handed handling of Herbert Fields’ book of the musical which was itself an adaptation, based as it was on Mark Twain’s novel “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” The adaptation was by William Friedberg, Neil Simon, Will Glickman and Al Schwartz … all writers with solid reputations and bright futures ahead of them.
Producer/director Max Liebman gets the ultimate blame for the weaknesses in this production, but it must be tempered with a touch of gratitude for preserving some nice work on the score. The team of Eddie Albert (yes, Eddie Albert!) and Janet Blair find romantic lilt in Richard Rodgers’ melody in their duet on “My Heart Stood Still” and they swing nicely on “Thou Swell.” John Conte is his reliable self delivering a strong “I Feel at Home With You.”
Best of all, Gale Sherwood delivers “To Keep My Love Alive” with a sense of conviction that makes Lorenz Hart’s witty lyrics work while delivering the rarely heard Rodgers and Hart gem “Can’t You Do A Friend A Favor” as if it were a standard in the pop music repertoire. (Unfortunately, Mr. Albert then mugs his way through the number.)
Those are the highlights of the 77 minute disc. There are more lowlights.
There’s the visor on John Conte’s helmet of his suit of armor that keeps falling over his face. There’s Leonard Elliott as Merlin looking for all the world like Johnny Carson in a Karnak The Magnificent skit. Most embarrassing of all is the performance of special guest star Boris Karloff who, as King Arthur, is visibly uncomfortable and yet apparently unaware of the weakness of his portrayal.
And there is what must be the most uncomfortable “curtain call” since the night one year earlier when Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra and Bert Lahr said “good night” at the end of a telecast of Anything Goes only to find they had three more minutes to stand there and “do something.” In the case here with A Connecticut Yankee it doesn’t seem to be a glitch. It seems to be intentional. The entire cast stands as if acknowledging applause – but there is no applause for there is no audience. So they just stand there while the camera pans back and forth. Talk about awkward!
As it happens, there is another, much more successful attempt to adapt this show for a smaller/shorter version. It is not a two hour television version but, rather, a half hour radio adaptation that keeps the strongest of the songs, blends them smoothly into a precis of the story and preserves both a sense of wit and of charm. It was presented on “The Railroad Hour” which, despite its title, never was a 60 minute radio show. It ran at 8 pm on Monday nights with Gordon MacRae costarring with a stream of well known leading ladies. The adaptations were often by Jean Holloway, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. You can listen to it on the Internet Archive at http://www.archive.org/details/TheRailroadHour. A Connecticut Yankee is #42 on the list of programs on its audio player.
The video on this DVD is in black and white, even though the announcer makes the proud claim that it is presented in NBC’s compatible color system. This disc was made from a black and white kinescope of the original broadcast. No color copy is known to exist.