12 Angry Men–television version, A

12 Angry Men–the movie, A+

In 1954, Reginald Rose’s story, 12 Angry Men, was produced for the TV anthology series Studio One.  Like several other similar shows of the era, this was broadcast LIVE–yes, live, to America!   The show was about a jury bent on quickly convicting the defendant for a wide variety of reasons.  Now you have no idea if the guy is guilty or not–but through the course of the production, it becomes obvious folks want to convict for all the wrong reasons.  The teleplay went over reasonably well but didn’t exactly make a huge impact.  However, the actor, Henry Fonda, sure was impressed by it–so impressed that he was willing to gamble on making it a theatrical release. 

Somehow, he was able to get the best possible character actors to agree to be in the movie as well–and they all worked for scale.  In other words, instead of their usual fees, they did it at a minimum because they believed so strongly in the script. And, luckily, they hired an incredibly talented new director, Sidney Lumet–and he did a marvelous job. Sadly, despite critical response that was very favorable, the film lost money and was ready to fade into obscurity.  However, over the years, this money-loser managed to impress people when it was replayed on television–and today it ranks as the 8th highest-ranked film of all-time on the Internet Movie Database.  In other words, a lot of folks love it today and realize it’s a classic!  I learned this when I used to teach, as students at the arts school where I taught begged me to show it to them–though, as a history and psychology teacher, I really couldn’t justify showing the film–even though it’s certainly one of my favorite films of the 1950s.

Fortunately for us, not only are you able to watch the Hollywood film version (available widely–including from Amazon.com and Netflix), but the original TV version was copied by the network–and the copy was discovered a few years ago.  Why keep a copy of a live broadcast, you might wonder.  Well, back in the days of live television, sometimes shows were copied for rebroadcast on the West Coast, since they are three hours behind New York where the teleplays were made.  Usually, they were later erased and the film reused!!  What a tragedy!  Fortunately, some wonderful person found this old kinescope copy and it’s been released.  One way you can watch it is by getting a hold of a wonderful box set entitled “Studio One Anthology”–a collection of 17 of these teleplays.

It is available on Netflix, but the quality of the shows is so good, you might just want to buy the set.  Additionally, like many other teleplays of the age, it’s available as a free download from archive.org–a wonderful site with public domain downloads.  As for the later movie, it’s available practically everywhere.  However, I have a warning: make sure you get the 1957 black & white movie, not the color remake from 1997.  Now I am not saying that the remake is bad, but it IS unnecessary.  The original is perfection–so perfect that no sane person would even consider remaking it!

So which is better–the original or the movie?  Well, I’d give my nod to the movie simply because of the cast and because the story seems a bit less rushed.  However, choosing between the two is sort of like having to pick Miss Universe and the First Runner-Up—they both are perfect or nearly perfect.  So regardless, I say see them both–you’ll be happy you did.  And, in the process, you’ll see some of the best acting of your life.

by Martin Hafer