THIS IS THE golden anniversary of a particularly golden year in the golden age of television. In 1954, the number of TV stations in the United States more than doubled, advertising revenue surpassed radio revenue for the first time, and Swanson introduced the TV dinner. NBC telecast the Tournament of Roses Parade, for the first time in color. ABC broadcast the Army-McCarthy hearings live. And on CBS, the crusading Edward R. Murrow dissected Joe McCarthy in historic telecasts that turned public opinion against the Commie-hunting senator.
And 1954 also happened to be the year a one-time television writer named Mel Brooks regarded as My Favorite Year, which became the title of a gem of a cinematic memoir - written by a former Baltimorean - and it's listed this weekend among the many offerings of the Maryland Film Festival. I have the happy honor of serving as host of my favorite film at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Brown Center of the Maryland Institute College of Art. I have wanted to share My Favorite Year with others for years. Turns out, loads of people love this picture, though most have not seen it since its release in 1982.
"I get so much nachas from this film," says the man Brooks hired to write the screenplay, Norman Steinberg, using the Yiddish for "joy." "Writers, especially, it touches. ... Years later, I walk into a room, people mention it. It gets such applause, this film. I think it's the sweetness of it."
Anyone who appreciates the high-wire act that television was in its early days - when almost every program was live, original and produced on the fly - will appreciate My Favorite Year. The story is supposedly based on Brooks' experiences with the legendary swashbuckling movie star Errol Flynn when Brooks was a rookie comedy writer on Sid Caesar's television show.
In the early 1950s, Caesar's Your Show of Shows was a hugely popular live Saturday night comedy, broadcast from NBC studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
It employed among its writing staff Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart.
One week, the story goes, the lushy, has-been Flynn (played as Alan Swann in the film by Peter O'Toole) had a guest appearance on the show, and Brooks (played as Brooklyn-born Benjy Stone by Mark Linn-Baker) was assigned to make sure Flynn got to rehearsals and to the broadcast.
"I was locked in the Waldorf Towers with Errol Flynn and two red-headed Cuban sisters," Brooks said in a 1997 interview with an Internet film magazine called Film Score Monthly. "For three days I was trying to get them out of there, and he was trying to get me drunk. ... It was the craziest weekend of my life. I was 20 years old and ... Errol Flynn was a raving maniac."
Brooks rejected the original script (working title: In Like Flynn) and called upon his friend, Steinberg, with whom he had written Blazing Saddles a few years earlier.
"He called me and said, 'I need a writer,'" Steinberg, a graduate of Baltimore's Forest Park High, said from California yesterday. "He said, 'I need a writer and I can't pay you enough.' I said, 'You can't pay me enough, or you won't pay me enough?' And Mel says, 'Yeah, one of those two.'"
This film is funny, downright slapstick, but surprisingly poignant, too. The story turns on the relationship between Swann and Stone, the awestruck young writer forced to set hero worship aside to save not only his own career but Swann's. I remember seeing this film within a year or so of the death of an alcoholic friend and being struck by its warnings against enabling drinkers. As a once-great movie star, Swann has avoided the true consequences of his disease, getting a free ride through life - with his driver Alfie Bumbacelli (played by Tony DiBenedetto) at the steering wheel.
It's young Stone, then Bumbacelli, who provide Swann his wakeup call.
The film has an array of amusing characters.
Joe Bologna is superb in the Sid Caesar role as the cigar-puffing, neurotic Stan "King" Kaiser, star of The Comedy Cavalcade, a tough guy with a heart of mush who tries to repair damaged relationships by sending people steaks, whitewalls and shoes. ("They're not serving tongue at lunch today, are they? Twice they served tongue on show day, twice the opening sketch died. No tongue on show day, get it? No tongue. Tongue? Death!")
Selma Diamond plays the cigarette-smoking, curmudgeonly costume lady. Lainie Kazan is Benjy's mother. ("Oh, Mr. Swann, on behalf of everyone here, I would like to welcome you to our humble chapeau.") Lou Jacobi plays Uncle Morty, a character inspired by Norman Steinberg's uncle from Brooklyn.
"This is my homage to my family," Steinberg said. "And it's a homage to Mel Brooks."
And it's a homage to a particularly golden year in a long-gone golden age.