It's a Sunday afternoon, July 16, 1939 to be precise, and Carole Lombard and Clark Gable are relaxing at their new Encino home.
"I remembered to cable Barbara Stanwyck and Ginger Rogers on their birthdays today," Clark told her.
"Very good. By the way, did you see the Times today?" Lombard asks of her husband.
"The sports section," he said. "The Reds rallied to win in New York and now lead the Giants by six-and-a-half games."
Carole smiled. "Pa, I know that Ohio's still in you, but I was talking about the entertainment section, specifically Hedda Hopper's column. Or, should I say, the person writing for Hedda, since she's still vacationing in the east."
Clark shrugged his shoulders. "I let you take care of Hedda, Louella, Jimmie Fidler and all those folks. Was there something about me I should know about -- whether or not it actually happened?" He chuckled.
"'Fraid not. But it was a pretty interesting piece, one I think you might enjoy reading. It's by Bill Lipscomb, who just won the screenplay Oscar for 'Pygmalion.'"
"Dig it out, I'll take a look."
Carole retrieved the newspaper and handed her husband the column in question:
Clark began reading the story and laughed quietly. "He says, 'Television isn't going to consist merely of news items and reproduced motion pictures.' You mean to say some of the films you and I each made are going to wind up on...television?"
"Why shouldn't they?" Carole replied. "They're not doing anyone any good languishing in a studio library, save for the occasional re-issue."
"Like your 'The Eagle And The Hawk,' which Paramount just brought back."
"Exactly. And see that they're doing televised plays in Great Britain, something we'll probably see here in the States before long."
Clark nodded. "Also note that 'The audience was seeing and hearing the performance simultaneously with the acting of it! No such thing as editing or cutting.' It'd be sort of like televising 'Lux Radio Theater,' only in costume."
"Took me a while to gather up the courage to do 'Lux,' and now I'm fine on radio," his wife said. "Television might be easier for you -- my stage experience is virtually nil."
"And another thing," Gable said. "According to this, 'The television appeal is so much more direct and personal than the appeal of the film.'"
"Yeah, Pa, but the screens are so small for television. It's like the old booths Edison had before either of us were born."
Gable smiled. "I take it you saw one of the final paragraphs, about writers like your old flame Bob Riskin."
"Don't knock Bob -- he helped win you an Oscar!"
"I wasn't, but the writer says, 'Television will demand something new every hour, every day, every month. Television will mean a lot of work for a lot of writers -- I hope.' In other words..."
"...it's gonna be like 1929 all over again, when all those New York Algonquin Round Table types headed out here. Hell, I bet every block from the Valley to Long Beach will be teeming with television writers." Lombard smiled. "Perhaps one of them will write something televised for me."
"Easy for you to say. Were I ever to enter L.B. Mayer's office and tell him I want to act on television, he'd probably laugh uncontrollably or have my head examined."
"He'd laugh now; I'd laugh now," Carole replied. "But someday..."
Many Americans glimpsed television for the first time that year at the New York World's Fair, as RCA had an exhibit that featured a transparent set. You could even buy a television set in 1939, though it was expensive and there wasn't much programming stateside:
This GE model let you hear the sound through a radio loudspeaker. The screen size? 3 1/4" x 4 1/4" (black and white, of course).
The article by Lipscomb, whose work also included "Under Two Flags" and "The Garden Of Allah," is fascinating and somewhat prescient -- although his British background fails to examine whether American film studios or radio networks would take the initiative in this new medium. (It turned out to be the latter, of course, and studios wouldn't become aggressive in TV production until the mid-fifties.) It, and the Lombard "Eagle And The Hawk" reissue ad, are from the 1939 thread in the "Your Favorites" section of the Turner Classic Movies message boards (http://forums.tcm.com/thread.jspa?threadID=157427&tstart=0).
The second story is from a British radio magazine in 1937, and provides an idea of what TV production was like in those infant years. (Among the actors who worked in those late '30s BBC plays was Greer Garson before she moved to this side of the pond.)
We'll never know whether Lombard would have excelled in television...but had she lived into the era when TV came into its own, chances are she would have tried it. As for Gable, his TV work consisted of waving to his fellow audience members when introduced during a telecast of Ed Sullivan's "Toast Of The Town" in the early '50s. (Sullivan and Gable had known each other since Ed was an entertainment columnist for the New York Daily News.)
Oh, and we wonder: Did Lucille Ball read this story that day, and did it give her any ideas?