Saturday, June 2, 2012

Seberg, Steve Allen, Huxley, Margaret Sanger, and Kissinger: The Mike Wallace Interviews (Part One)

The Internet is crammed to capacity with great things that no one knows exist, so I am always very happy to share new discoveries, especially those that shed light on pop culture’s past. As I have noted in two preceding blog entries (about the Speaking of Radio website and the YT channel for Soapbox Productions), interviews do keep the voices of the departed alive, so I hereby put the spotlight on the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center online archive of the 1957-58 ABC TV show The Mike Wallace Interview.
Wallace died last month and was given numerous encomiums for being the most hardcore TV journalist around. What was most interesting about the trajectory of his career is that he was NOT a newsman by choice — he sorta fell into it after being an actor and a radio announcer for many, many different programs. Thus, he was not a hardened reporter like the model of a TV journalist, Edward R. Murrow. He was a guy outta work who just sorta drifted into the game of interviewing famous folks and then reporting on a TV news magazine.
That should be kept in mind while watching The Mike Wallace Interviews, which came after Wallace’s stay on the Dumont program Night Beat, where he had developed his much-vaunted “take no prisoners” style of interviewing. That style was in fact a hook (his “brand,” if such a term had existed back then) and was indeed shtick, since the outrage that is heard on some of these shows from Wallace is not because the guest seems evasive in their answers, but rather because what they’ve said is “offensive” to the American mentality.
Of course, I was most interested in some of the entertainment-industry interviewees, but it was with hard-hitting political interviews that Wallace seemed to “make news,” esp. after 60 Minutes began. In absorbing a bunch of the Interviews, however, it became clear to me that Wallace was simply a barometer reflecting what was socially acceptable on network TV at the time.
Thus, he is very hard on the racists he interviews, but oddly, he’s also very tough on the women he talks to (in fact, he’s sometimes openly rude to them). His interviewer persona wanted to know “if you’ll be giving up your career to have a family,” and whether his female guests thought any less of themselves for not doing so. The other really rigid viewpoint he espouses in a number of these shows concerns religion: he affects a major “concern” over those interviewees who are atheists and seems relieved when show-biz types talk about believing in a deity.
But of course the show did air in the Fifties, and perhaps that was the way that intellectual ideas had to be packaged, with the host as a moral arbiter — no, wait, Murrow and Steve Allen never felt the need to diminish a guest to get the “American agenda” across in their interviews. Wallace was a compelling personality on-screen and was a fascinating interviewer to watch, but the interviewing MW was in fact the best role of his life. And if any of his previous jobs before Night Beat had worked out, he never would’ve been an interviewer in the first place….
Onto the episodes. Since I’ve evoked Steve Allen already, let me spotlight the talk with Steverino first. I am a giant fan of Steve’s work, so was pleased to see him in his prime with Wallace. However, the conversation does not range all over the map (as it easily could have, given Steve’s curiosity and knowledge about different issues).
Instead the main topic of conversation is Steve’s “feud” with Ed Sullivan, since he was on directly opposite the Old Stoneface. Sullivan of course “won” the race for ratings in that timeslot, entirely due to his top-notch guest bookings (as charming and smart as Steve was, was as boring and clueless Ed was). In the meantime, we do get to hear Steve deem TV awards as “meaningless” (a comment that never dates) and discuss how his show received bad reviews and hate mail when he had the “adultress” Ingrid Bergman on as a guest. Watch the interview here.
What is interesting about the program is that Wallace makes the pretense that he’s pursuing a heavy news story — the most commonly-uttered phrase on the show was “we’ll go after that story in just a minute.” Whereas, in many cases, he was simply interviewing someone the public was interested in, regardless of whether there was any true newsworthiness to the discussion.
The only time there was newsworthiness on the show was in Wallace’s interview with columnist Drew Pearson, who openly said that Senator John Kennedy hadn’t written his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage (Pearson stood by his claim, and the suit was dropped — Kennedy assistant Ted Sorensen wrote the majority of the book).
Wallace’s interviews with newsmakers were indeed confrontational. A good example is his grilling of Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus. Faubus had refused to allow integration in a Little Rock High School, and Wallace confronts him here, as (again) a sort of watchdog for the “American” point of view. (This being the Northern, urban point of view.) Faubus wisely refuses to give his own opinion, but says he represents the state’s voters.
Since the show was a prime reflector of Fifties culture, I have to next turn to the show with Philip Wylie. Wylie was an extremely popular genre novelist and social commentator who isn’t spoken of much these days, but his philosophies were fascinating. In this talk he accurately speaks about both the fact that America has become “a nation of exalted ignoramouses” and the emptiness of religion (in which the practitioners have very “un-Christianlike manners”).
Wallace seems particularly pissed off by Wylie’s put-down of religion, but the two don’t cross swords on one of Wylie’s most famous concepts, the notion of “Mom-ism” having taken over America in the mid-20th century (though it sounds like a purely sexist concept, it’s actually a nuanced, extremely Freudian view of the American male). Most interesting are his responses to Wallace’s fast-answer queries: should birth control be allowed (“why not? We control death”); is Israel a valid state (it’s “another religious nation”); can mercy killing be condoned (“it’s okay,” Wylie quickly answers). His loathing of Liberace isn’t explained, but it was most likely in his mind linked to “Mom-ism.”
Wallace’s show was by no means an “intellectual” outing (in fact, Mike seemed to be a stand-in for the “average” urban American male), but his producers did book some fine minds, having theologian Reinhold Neibuhr on for a full show.
Neibhur proves to be the kind of free-thinking theist that all of us, regardless of our beliefs (or lack thereof), can respect. He states his uncategorical support for the separation of church and state — but because, again, this is the Fifties, he does note that a nuclear war “might be necessary.” He approves of Bertrand Russell and other atheist philosophers by quoting the Bible: “by his works shall you judge a man.”
Perhaps the most famous intellectual who sat in the guest’s chair was Aldous Huxley, with whom Wallace discussed some very important and extremely timeless topics: the loss of personal freedom in modern society; the threat of subliminal advertising; how technological devices are taking over our existence (what a silly idea —where did he get these notions?); and, most fascinatingly, his prediction that drugs wil be marketed that will make man more “happy in his slavery.” The Huxley interview is here.
Wallace’s interview with Malcolm Muggeridge is equally bound up with “big issues” — but in this case the lion’s share of the time is spent discussing a recent article that Muggeridge had written in The Saturday Evening Post, asking “Does England Need a Queen?” (which included the idea that Queen Liz was thought of as “frumpy and dowdy” by the average British woman). Wallace is well pleased with Muggeridge, though, since he’s an intellectual who is religious (god, Mike could be tiresome).
I guess the most interesting “egghead” guest that Wallace had on, especially for folks like myself who grew up in the Seventies, was that wacky old war criminal himself, Mr. Henry Kissinger. The whole episode is an experiment in Strangelove-speak, as Mike and Henry discuss the possibility of a “limited nuclear war” and “war as a usable instrument of policy” (for some lighter fare, they chat about “the collapse of the free world”). As always Kissinger’s notions are chillingly cold and calculating. The man was/is brilliant, but it’s terrifying to think he ran American international policy for a number of years.
I haven’t watched all of the Wallace episodes available on the UT site, but perhaps the single most interesting example of Wallace busting the chops of someone who doesn’t need their chops busted is his interview with Margaret Sanger, the legendary (and blessed) advocate of birth control in America and around the world. Wallace lays into a Sanger, starting off with the notion that he will tackle the big issues in his interview with her – like whether birth control is “murder” (or, alternately, a “sin”).
Wallace reacts to Sanger as if she was the female equivalent of the KKK chief he interviewed early on in the series (who was dumb and racist, whereas Sanger legitimately seemed to want help people out). Wallace interrogates her about whether her advocacy of birth control was just “a way to fight the church” (since she had an Atheist father). She responds very calmly at one point that sex isn’t just for having children — which is indeed a wild concept to be espoused on network TV in the uptight Fifties.
Wallace’s “pursuit” of Sanger as if she was a snake-oil salesman foisting a phony belief on the American public is underscored by his middle-of-the-road attitude — perhaps the most interesting question he asks is “if women have become too indepdendent" as of late. It’s interesting to note that Sanger’s calmly spoken views have been proven right by history, while Mike’s take on the issues is still in mainstream broadcasting — but it’s moved over to Fox News, where Mike’s son Chris now works.

Continuing with the notion of Mike leaning on a female guest, there is the talk with Diana Barrymore, whose infamous tell-all biography had come out before she guested on his show. He accuses her of being too revelatory, of tarring her father’s reputation (is there anyone who knows of John Barrymore who didn't know that he was a complete alcoholic?).

Wallace is a moral arbiter here, interrogating Diana with a disapproving tone. The interview is fascinating but depressing to watch — and much more depressing when you find out DB was only 36 years old here, and that she only lived three more years, at which time she committed suicide with alcohol and sleeping pills.

Completing the troika of women interview subjects that Wallace was a general dick to is one of my all-time favorites, actress Jean Seberg. Wallace speaks to her at the moment when her second feature Bonjour Tristesse is about to open. She is very willing to discuss the horrible critical drubbing she got for her acting in Preminger’s St. Joan, but Wallace really rides her, wanting to know why the public would idolize a person like her.
Wallace tells Jean that she’s a “synthetic star” and “not the prettiest girl in the world.” Clearly he was keying into the average American’s love/hate relationships with celebrities, but it seems particularly harsh to go after a young starlet, telling her, in essence, she is “not needed.”

He does hook her up to Brando and Dean, whom she says she likes (“they fight conformity”), but clearly Old Man Mike has a problem with the youth culture of the Fifties (I’m sure he absolutely loathed what followed in the Sixties). Perhaps the most telling question he asks Seberg is to inquire of her what is “wrong with the average life,” as if she committed a crime forsaking the life of a wife and mother to be an actress.
More about the profound and ridiculous moments in part two of this blog post, coming up — above!

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