Awake And Sing! (1972)
Ralph: It's a cockeyed world.
Jake: Boys like you could fix it someday.- Robert Lipton, Leo Fuchs
Stars: Walter Matthau, Ruth Storey, Felicia Farr, Leo Fuchs
Other Stars: Robert Lipton, Martin Ritt, Ron Rifkin, Milton Selzer, John Myhers
Director: Norman Lloyd & Robert Hopkins
MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:35m:37s
Release Date: 2002-04-16
DVD ReviewClifford Odets was a widely celebrated playwright in his time, but I don't know that the intervening decades since his greatest successes in the 1930s have been especially kind to his reputation. He doesn't seem to be quite on the first tier of the pantheon of American dramatists, the territory inhabited by O'Neill and Williams, Miller and Albee; his best work in Hollywood was probably his rewrite on someone else's script—he shares screen credit with Ernest Lehman for the screenplay of Sweet Smell of Success, based on Lehman's novella. And he may be best known to more recent audiences as the model for the title character in Barton Fink. Perhaps it was Odets's politics that kept him from greater acclaim—he was a target of Senator Joseph McCarthy's in the 1950s—or perhaps it's merely that with the benefit of hindsight his work seems overly stylized and almost alien to our own sensibilities. Whatever the reasons, this handsome production of one of Odets's best works comes to DVD and makes a pretty persuasive case for him as one of the great American dramatic writers.
Awake and Sing! was originally produced by the famed Group Theater in 1935, and was mounted in 1972 in this TV version, for what was called Hollywood Television Theater—it seems like an effort both to bring East Coast theatrical traditions to Los Angeles, and to revive the glory of the Playhouse 90 days. It is in many respects a pretty classically well-made play, in three acts, with the introduction of a problem, rising dramatic action, and a tidy conclusion just as the curtain goes down; but it's most notable for Odets's keen ear for the vernacular, and for the candor with which it discusses previously taboo topics like sex, appalling working conditions, and family guilt. All the action is confined to a Bronx apartment, home of the Bergers—Bessie and Myron live with their two children, Ralph, a dreamer at sixteen, and Hennie, who at twenty-six shames her parents because she hasn't yet landed a husband. ("A girl, twenty-six, don't grow younger," as her mother needles her.) Also in the house is Bessie's father, Jake, an ardent Marxist; their boarder is Moe Axelrod, a World War I veteran who lost a leg just before the armistice.
Compared to early O'Neill plays, the dialogue pops and the characters crackle—I'll take this over something like Anna Christie any day. Odets's ear for his characters' voices is wonderful, and things just sound like the Bronx: "You gave the doggie?" "I gave the doggie." "If you got an orange, I'll eat an orange." And it's not just in the commonplace exchanges, but as the drama gets heated the words sound so rich: "Say the word and I'll tango on a dime! Don't give me ice when your heart's on fire!" The actors seem to be having a glorious time with this, especially Walter Matthau as Axelrod; he gives a fully felt performance that indicates what a terrific stage actor he must have been. (Long before my time, but I would have loved to have seen him on Broadway in The Odd Couple, as Oscar to his original Felix, Art Carney.) Ruth Storey is a rough matriarch as Bessie, and as the play goes on, you can't help but think that this woman is a monster, impossible for both of her children, terrorizing her weak husband (Milton Selzer), and that Storey is doing just some powerhouse work. Everybody does well, but I was especially impressed with Ron Rifkin, as a poor, put-upon Russian immigrant, roped into the Berger family: "I'm a lonely man. Nobody likes me."
The politics can be a little heavy-handed—Leo Fuchs, as Jacob, is frequently little more than the mouthpiece for the fashionable Marxism of the 1930s ("Do what is in your heart, and carry in yourself a revolution"), and Ralph especially can be overly starry-eyed about the capacity for change: "Maybe we'll fix it so life won't be printed on dollar bills." But at a time when American theater was finding its voice, and the Great Depression was ravaging most of the country's citizens, Awake and Sing! must have been a bracing and novel evening on Broadway. It retains much of its power, even if the voice in which it speaks seems frequently arch and overly stylized.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: Resolution on the thirty-year-old television master has suffered, and hence horizontal lines rise with some frequency across the screen. Also, the occasional boom microphone dips into the top of the frame, and some unfortunately abrupt cutting can be quite jarring; but that seems to be due to poor camera work for a taped play, no fault of the transfer.
Image Transfer Grade: C
Audio Transfer Review: Lots of buzz and pop on the soundtrack interferes with the dialogue; unfortunately it seems to be especially bad during the climactic third act. Again, this may well be a fault of the original production, but during some of the dinner scenes, the clanging together of dishes produces a cacophony that can drown out the actors.
Audio Transfer Grade: D+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 6 cues and remote access
- Highlights from the Broadway Theater Archive catalog
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsA first-rate team of actors in a fine American play make this DVD worth checking out, even if the technical aspects of the production are seriously compromised. I don't anticipate any sort of groundswell of new popularity for Odets, but this is a fine introduction to the work of one of the great and underrepresented American playwrights.
Jon Danziger 2002-07-26