Hollywood lore is peppered with stories about big stars flourishing then flopping when movie technology changed. Film historians still debate, for example, the fate of silent movie star John Gilbert (above).
Did audiences really titter at the squeaky sound of Gilbert’s voice when he appeared as “Captain Kovacs” in the 1929 MGM talkie, His Glorious Night? Or, were they reacting more to the romantic melodrama’s lousy script based on a wordy Ferenc Molnar play?
In any case, Gilbert’s career did NOT flourish after sound came in. Scholars today attribute this largely to the actor’s feud with MGM boss Louis B. Mayer — they disliked each other intensely — and less to the “squeaky voice” theory.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today to ponder another veteran star’s rocky transition from one medium to another. We are indebted here to the recollections of William Shatner in his lively 2008 memoir, Up Till Now, coauthored by David Fisher.
Although the transition from movies to live television wasn’t as traumatic as the shift from silents to talkies, the change did trip up Basil Rathbone (below), one of Hollywood’s most durable stars.
Shatner, who worked a lot in TV’s early days, got a break (he was playing “Ranger Bob” on the Howdy Doody Show at the time) when he landed the title role in the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s one-hour television production of Billy Budd, based on Herman Melville’s novel about an innocent sailor who is hanged.
Rathbone, then in his mid-Sixties, was also cast in the teleplay. Remember, this was in 1955 when many such programs were aired live — no taping or filming. What went on in the studio went out unfiltered over the air.
I’d grown up watching (Rathbone) play Sherlock Holmes in the movies. He was a very well-respected stage and movie actor, but this was one of his first, if not his very first, live television appearances,” Shatner recalled.
He noticed that Basil was as calm as a cucumber. Do you know why I’m not nervous?, asked Rathbone, who went on to provide this answer to his own question. Because, you see, in the United States there’s thirty to fifty million people watching a television program, but in Canada it’s only five to ten million.
Montreal-born Shatner took slight umbrage at this but kept his mouth shut, and the live telecast proceeded on schedule. We went on the air and the first act was progressing very well, right until (Rathbone) walked onboard the ship and stepped into a bucket.
His foot got caught in the bucket and he couldn’t get it off. The camera shot only his upper body so none of the viewers could see him madly shaking his leg, trying to get his foot out of that bucket. He was working so hard to get his foot free that he forgot his lines. And when he forgot his lines he began to sweat.
The rest of us tried to feed him his lines … It was a disaster. But fortunately it was seen by only ten million Canadians.
It should be noted that Rathbone subsequently flourished in television in a variety of series and formats, as did Shatner, of course. But Burke’s Law and Dr. Kildare in the Sixties, and later specials and TV movies were either filmed or taped.