The Star Wagon, produced for WNET and NET Playhouse at the time that National Educational Television was evolving into the Public Broadcasting System, is one of the television plays available from distributors like Broadway Theatre Archive who specialize in early television productions. It’s also available as a rental from Netflix.
Taped mainly on location, The Star Wagon follows Bean, a dreamy inventor, and his earthy sidekick, Hoffman, as they try to reverse their fortunes by turning back time. If the outcome of their journey through time seems sappy and predictable nowadays, that may say more about the cynicism of the 21st Century than it does about the naiveté of television audiences in the '60s, who were comfortable with Hollywood endings, the triumph of good over evil and the idea that innocence, lost in time, can be restored. And some of Anderson’s themes — that there are no great men, that nothing matters more than freedom, and that the business of business is the fleecing of the unwary – seem, in this age of Ponzi schemes and bailouts, downright timeless.
Television is an intimate medium, suited for low-key performances, and Genus’ cast, led by Bean and Lorring in the role of Bean’s long-suffering wife, deliver the kind of casual intimacy seldom seen in film. Genus uses his performers and the low resolution images of early black-and-white video to create a unique mix of impressionism and naturalism. The high contrast images of Genus’ actors, overexposed to the extent that the actors’ bodies seem to glow, are painterly and impressionistic, but the performances Genus and his actors create are natural and realistic.
Genus’ cast has a remarkable ability to be with one another, to be with Maxwell Anderson’s script, and to demonstrate that good acting is, in fact, reacting. The result is a kind of naturalness that even directors like John Cassavetes, who were completely committed to naturalism and improvisation, never achieved. Cassavetes was able to use improvisation to structure his films by creating realistic situations, but the dialogue his actors improvised seldom matched Anderson’s ear for small talk, flip comments, and the kind of gentle razzing we see in The Star Wagon.
Anderson and Genus deliver poetry, as well. Standing on the star wagon, Hoffman looks like an angel with one good wing. There is a dreamlike, druggy quality to Bean and Hoffman’s laughter as they launch themselves back through time. Bean moves effortlessly from innocence, as he rehearses a hymn, The Holy City, with Lorring, to funny sexuality as Eileen Brennan digs in his front pocket for candy at a picnic; and Bean’s dark and violent rebirth leaves the impression of opera, of voices singing together to reveal the dark underside of Anderson’s comedy before Hoffman yanks Bean from the river to begin life over, half-drowned and miserable, lying in the mud with his head in Brennan’s wet lap.
Technically, these scenes of Bean’s death and rebirth by the river are as advanced as any experimental cinema of the Sixties. Bean’s passage begins with the sound of Hoffman pushing Brennan out to the way and jumping into the river, but we aren’t allowed to see Hoffman pull Bean out of the water until we enter the drowning Bean’s thoughts and contemplate nothing less than the meaning of life.
It is possible to think of life as a long series of paths not taken, doors opened or not opened, decisions made one way instead of another. It is a convention of most time travel films that the journey back through time will either change nothing, or it will change everything. The art of those films is to show why this should be so, to explain in a satisfying way why history had to happen exactly as it did happen. In The Star Wagon, Anderson breaks with that convention. He raises the possibility of changing history by going back in time, and then rejects that possibility as an act of will. Orson Bean’s Stephen returns to the present tense of his life as we found him, not because he has to, but because he wants to. But he is better for having made the journey, even if the world is not, and, watching the film, I felt the sweetness of life in a way I had not felt it since those summer evenings long ago, when I was a boy and I waited nervously at shortstop for our pitcher to deliver his first pitch.
At the end of the play, Stephen tells us his time machine is just a way of remembering the past. Karl Genus’ The Star Wagon is as good a way as any of remembering some of broadcast television’s best years. And that’s something, in my view, upon which it is worth spending some time.