Sunday, January 6, 2013

Chasing "The Paper Chase"

There are a number of film/TV titles which have never been released on video that I periodically search for. Some may have had an obscure VHS release that is hard to find or ridiculously expensive in its rarity, and others seem to have never seen the light of day of any home video release.

The early 1930 "talkie" film The Royal Family of Broadway based on the George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber play The Royal Family, is a film I've always wanted to see. It has been on my radar for several years and I finally found it posted on Youtube in multiple parts. It stars Frederick March and an actress unknown to me, Ina Claire, in parodied portrayals of the famous Barrymore acting clan (Ethel and John) of the early 20th Century, of which Drew Barrymore is descended. The quality of the video was poor but the film itself was very good.

The David Lynch television comedy series from 1992, On The Air, an ABC show in which only 3 of the 7 filmed episodes were broadcast, is another title which is unavailable. The word was that it was simply too bizarre for network television. I missed the 3 televised episodes during its original run and I have been putting out online searches for it for a number of years. David Lynch has been known to sell videos of the series directly from his own website, but only occasionally. I have found the first few episodes on Youtube. It is a whacked-out show about a fictitious TV network in the 1950s putting on a variety television program.

Occasionally I'll search for titles that have been unavailable, and on a recent hunt, I was delighted to find that the television program, The Paper Chase has finally been released by Shout! Factory on DVD. So far only the first two seasons have been released.

It was a favorite program of mine on CBS during the 1978-79 TV season. It was a ratings disaster. Scheduled opposite the then most popular programs on television - Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley - The Paper Chase lasted one whole season dead last in the Nielson ratings. Legendary CBS founder and president William S. Paley, who built CBS up from a small radio network into the empiric television network it became, was fond of the show, and purportedly saw comparisons with the series' relationships between a renowned law professor and his students, and Paley's kinship with his own young television executives. It stubbornly remained in its doomed time slot for the entire season and was then cancelled.

PBS - Public Broadcasting System, in what was an unprecedented move for public television, re-broadcast the repeats of the series, marking possibly the only time an American network program was repeated nationally on PBS. There was talk of new episodes being produced by PBS, but it wasn't until four years after its cancellation by CBS, that fledgling pay-TV cable network Showtime renewed the series for three more seasons.

It is only the first season that I have been craving to see again. Strangely, the subsequent seasons on Showtime, resembled the bland familiarity of dramatic television. Being able to add more mature adult content on a pay-TV network, did little to improve The Paper Chase.  The whimsy and intellect of its first season on CBS was missing in subsequent Showtime episodes.

Based on both the 1970 novel by John Jay Osborn Jr. and the 1973 movie version, TV's The Paper Chase retained the Oscar winning actor from the film version, John Houseman (1902-1988), for the lead role of Professor Charles Kingsfield, a renowned law professor who intimidates but nurtures his students like a crowned king in the study of law at a prestigious American law school. Unlike other TV programs of its era, or any other era, The Paper Chase relied on story lines that rarely invoked the traditional formula of television network programming; action, comedy, adventure. Its drama was realized in the study of law being an adventure in itself. Plot lines would evolve around  legal issues and cases the students were studying.

It was partially filmed at The University of Southern California, giving it a tree-lined, hallowed halls collegiate appeal. The show follows first year student James Hart, a farm boy going to law school on a scholarship, played by actor James Stephens, as he contends with his utter fascination, fear and awe of  the infamous Professor Kingsfield. The supporting cast is made up of other students who form a study circle with Hart. They all share the common bond of being at the mercy of the god-like Kingsfield.

I'm 8 episodes into revisiting the program, and loving it again. A few celebrities have popped up unexpectedly. Marilu Henner of TV's Taxi, appears in the pilot episode as Hart's co-worker at his part-time bar tending gig.  A very young Kim Cattrall, Samantha on HBO's Sex and The City, has a featured role as the wife of a harried law student in the 6th episode, "Da-Da".

The catchy theme song, "The First Years" rolls through my mind every time I think of the program. It is sung by Seals and Crofts and written by Charles Fox and Norman Grimbel, who wrote the songs "Killing Me Softly With His Song", popularized by Roberta Flack, and Jim Croce's "I Got A Name".

The program may seem a little drab and crudely 70s-ish to some viewers. For all its gentle nature, it can at times become exceptionally heated and exciting. Witness the violent nature of Kingsfield (John Houseman) as he reacts to a paparazzi photographer invading his classroom in the episode "Nancy". The scene has all the fury of TV's most action packed moments.