Friday, June 8, 2012

Ustinov, Vallee, Tony Perkins, Dors, Dagmar, and Dali: The Mike Wallace Interview (Part Two)

To pick up where I left off — with Wallace positioning himself as the moral arbiter of middle-brow America — I should mention that the sponsor of The Mike Wallace Interviews was Philip Morris, touted proudly by Mike as having “a man’s kind of mildness.”
Wallace liked to play indignant in his interviews, and nowhere was that clearer than with people he didn’t think should be taken seriously. That could be a crazy Klan leader, or a starlet (Jean Seberg), or a young male star like Tony Perkins. Wallace’s interview with Perkins is an amazing program, since Wallace appears to want to do with Tony what he did with Jean — make him admit he’s young and untalented, that his belief systems are all wrong, and Americans should not be paying to see his films.
It’s easy to link Tony to the interviews with women that Wallace conducted, not because he was gay but because he played “sensitive” characters, and this could hardly be tolerated by the Man’s Man that was Mike Wallace. Thus, the questions run along the lines of asking Tony if he really believes he could be “the next Clark Gable or Gary Cooper,” whether his reputation as a “brooding misfit” is accurate, what he thinks of the Beat Generation, and (again, Wallace playing moral arbiter) what his religious beliefs are.
Tony of course made a career out of playing nervous characters, so here as himself he seems on-edge and uncertain whether Wallace is being complimentary or insulting (Mike’s hardline interviewer act was a role that he stumbled into in the mid-Fifties, as I noted in the last blog entry).
The strangest moments come when Wallace repeats anecdotes from a Newsweek article that paints Tony as a pain-in-the-ass prone to egomaniacal outbursts, and when Wallace wants to know what Perkins is doing when he has been spotted driving around Manhattan in the early morning hours. The later sleazy bios of Perkins provide the real answer to that question, but Tony says he just likes seeing the city when it’s empty and quiet.
What’s most startling about Wallace’s getting strident with Jean Seberg and Tony Perkins is that he absolutely fawns over Rudy Vallee, the old “vagabond lover,” who was completely irrelevant by the late Fifties. One must assume that Mike’s mom loved Rudy (or he himself had very fond memories of Vallee’s radio work), because much of the interview consists of Wallace breaking his “hard man” act to bow and scrape before Rudy — who is by turns self-deprecating and egomaniacal.
The best moment in this chat? The discussion of whether Rudy’s reputation as a cheapskate is real or made-up. Rudy pretty much confirms it’s all true, but also defends saving his shekels all the time.
Interestingly, Wallace does not fawn much over Kirk Douglas, who was of course a major show business name in the late Fifties. He asks Kirk the usual softball questions about being famous and how American movies help forge the American image overseas, but the oddest portion of the show is when Mike “gets tough” with him.
Douglas had made two movies in Germany (Paths of Glory and The Vikings), and Wallace says his “team” has found out that Kirk had an ex-Nazi on his payroll. Wallace cleverly asks Douglas how he feels “as a Jew” to know this (somehow Mike never i.d.’ed himself as Jewish in these hard-edged chats; in the one with Reinhold Neibhur he asks coyly about “our Jewish brothers”).
From that “hard” question, Wallace moves to interrogating Douglas on whether he’d ever employ a Communist. Kirk says no, but then Mike asks what about a former Communist…? This is two years before Douglas did indeed employ Dalton Trumbo on Spartacus, so maybe Mike had heard a story somewhere (man, he really could’ve worked for Fox News….).
A show business figure that Mike is by turns rude and respectful to is Britain’s “answer to Marilyn Monroe,” Diana Dors (the one-time wife of recent Deceased Artiste Richard Dawson). In his interview with her, Mike asks her to evaluate herself as a person and on a physical level, but also tries to sow some discord by asking her what she’s “ashamed” of, and if she is worried about getting old and losing her looks — Dors was of course famous for having gained weight within a decade of being a sexpot, so Wallace’s hard-edged questions again have a weird foreshadowing quality to them.
Wallace’s tut-tting seems particularly odd from the current historical vantage point when he’s trying to the put the screws to publisher Bennett Cerf. He goes on the premise that “book publishers expose children to obscene trash,” asking Cerf to deny that notion.
At one point he hands Cerf an “objectionable” novel and asks him if he’d publish it (Cerf says no), and whether it should be censored (Cerf says no again). Providing the obvious answer, Cerf (who was a delight in his weird wordplay on What’s My Line?) says that if you deny publications that to teenagers, they will only become more desirable.
Certain episodes of the series have been lost (or simply not donated to the U of T library — see below). One of the MW interviews that only exists in transcript form is his talk with writer Ben Hecht, who proved to be one bitter and sharply intelligent older gent. He states outright that “Americans can’t think for themselves, speak for themselves…. they’re terrified at making any crack against anything successful or popular."
Add to that the fact that he calls religion “part of an odd mythomania,” and you just know that old moralizin’ Mike must’ve been “disturbed” (it’s a “work,” kids, as they say in wrestling) by Hecht’s words. To further Hecht’s dismissal of the chipper side of the Fifties, he notes that Nixon is “the most well-dressed boy Washington has seen in a long time” and says that Ike is “trying to save the world by boring it to the point of inanity.” That sounds a lot more misfit-like than anything Seberg or Perkins came out with.
In fact, older men were generally the ones who didn’t let Mike get away with his brusque questioning (and one blonde — but we’ll get to her in a minute). The series’ only two-part interview, with master-architect Frank Lloyd Wright, finds Mike’s requests for quick answers being thwarted by Wright, who refers to his interlocutor as “my dear Mike.” Wright argues against organized religion (in favor of nature, which he calls his religion) and argues for the intelligence and vitality of the day’s youth, two things Wallace-as-moral-arbiter has to get a tad uppity about.
The most interesting part of the Wright interview happens when Wallace quizzes the architect on “the audience watching tonight that doesn’t understand or care about modern art.” Quite wisely, Wright says that their opinions are “worthless” (hey, Frank Lloyd, I’ll have you know that that same audience now watches American Idol and America’s Got Talent and… oh wait, you’re right….). He also grabs at a copy of his latest book, which somehow Wallace has gotten a copy of from the publisher (he remarks that he doesn’t have a copy yet — and you just know that Mike never got that book back…)
Since Wallace represented the average urban-American Joe, he obviously had to be startled and a bit peeved at the odd behavior of the original Warhol, master surrealist and relentless self-promoter Salvador Dali. In his interview with Dali, he asks him the besides-the-point question “Why do you behave the way you do?” and refers to his “clowning and showmanship.”
Dali controls the show from the beginning (his eccentricities were his stock in trade, and he wasn’t going to let any radio announcer turned hardboiled “newsman” spoil his shtick). He articulates some very spot-on things about the “atomic age” and the psychoanalytic aspect of his paintings and, according to Wallace, was all for camping the thing up because he asked him to “ask embarrassing questions” before the cameras started rolling.
Finally I turn to the other essential (for me) interview, with an individual who I greatly admire, Peter Ustinov (a clip from my friendlier, shorter interview with Sir Peter can be found here). Mike's interview with Ustinov begins with Wallace acknowledging the immense talent of Ustinov, but by the end he’s still gotten his barb in, with a question about Peter being able to do so many things, but not being “great” at any one of them (this from the radio announcer who failed and became a newsman by mistake). Ustinov was 36 at the time of the chat, and he was truly a self-effacing renaissance man — able to speak knowledgably about a great variety of topics, he still acknowledged the importance of humor to what he did (it was, he states, his “safety valve”).
Ustinov was the real deal, the kind of an entertainer and artist (and thinker) who had confidence in his own ability, but knew that he existed in a completely commercial industry (his response to Wallace’s bringing up “money” is to merely reply “surival,” and then speak about how he existed in “the century of the middleman”).
Not a fan of the military (he discusses how badly he faired as a soldier during WWII), he also rebuffs Mike’s attempt to compare him to Orson Welles, noting that Welles is a great dramatist, while he worked from a humorous perspective (not true for several of his finest works, including the film Billy Budd).
I should close out this survey of the Wallace shows online with Ustinov, given my great admiration for him, but I have to instead spotlight Dagmar, the comedienne (there’s a word not used after 1970) from the first late-night network show Broadway Open House, who is the one guest who quickly snaps back at Wallace (with humor) and who seems to keep him off-center throughout their chat.
Wallace’s questions to her are still rude as hell — again, this is the man who was bending over backward to praise Rudy Vallee, but he is okay with asking a woman who was a major star just a few years before “What do you miss now that you’re not as big-time as you used to be?” The answer to his query “why aren’t you on TV more?” is obvious: she wasn’t being asked, she had fallen out of fashion. She proves, however, to be a delight in his half-hour, because she continually tweaks Wallace’s hardboiled demeanor, to the extent that he winds up calling her “ma’am” by the end of the talk.
There are a number of other interesting interviews on the Harry Ransom Center page for the Wallace Interviews. Among them are Gloria Swanson, Lili St. Cyr, a festively attired head of the KKK, Oscar Hammerstein II (who discusses his liberalism while Mike posits that the media is intolerant of conservatism — Fox News!), George Jessel, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Lillian Roth.
According to Wikipedia and other writings about the series, Wallace also interviewed Rod Serling, guru for the greedy (and selfish) Ayn Rand, and Malcolm X in this series, but those interviews are not included on the HRC page.
At the end of the Rudy Vallee show Wallace touts Tennessee Williams as his next guest, but that show also isn’t online. That certainly could’ve been a lively encounter — imagine all the complaints about morality and abstraction in art that moral arbiter Mike could’ve brought up to him….

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