Steve Canyon (1958-1959)

 

 

Steve Canyon

Lt. Col. Steve Canyon (Dean Fredericks)

The Series

Steve Canyon was a comic strip created by Milton Caniff. In 1958 it became a half-hour TV series, which ran for just one season of 34 episodes on the NBC network. The title character was a pilot and troubleshooter for the US air force, working out of Big Thunder Air Force Base.

The regular cast were Dean Fredericks (Canyon) and Jerry Paris (his superior, Major Willie Williston).

 

Milton Caniff's comic strip.

 

Bradbury Episode

Bradbury wrote one script for the series:

Episode 16: "The Gift" (20 Dec 1958)
Until recently, virtually nothing had been published about this episode. The Classic TV Archive - which has the most detailed episode guide on the web - gave no detail at all. This is not suprising, since Steve Canyon was virtually unseen on TV after its last network airing in the summer of 1960 - and Bradbury's single episode was only ever screened once, just before Christmas of 1958.

Bradbury's episode is based on Bradbury's short story of the same title (first published in Esquire, December 1952; collected in A Medicine for Melancholy/The Day it Rained Forever), but with substantial changes. All that remains of the original story is the central idea. The characters, setting and plot are completely changed. Whereas the short story is set on a spaceship in the future, this TV episode is set in late 1950s Europe.

Steve Canyon is despatched to bring a camp of displaced children (in bombed-out Europe) to an airbase to celebrate Christmas. Judging from the signage, the camp is in Hungary.

Most of the kids are delighted with the chance to fly, and even more delighted by the giant Christmas tree, the lights and assorted presents. Except for Lisa Serenko. She hates planes. Not surprising, since her country and family have been destroyed by allied bombers.

Despite his best efforts, Canyon is unable to cheer Lisa up. Finally, he decides to confront her fears. He takes her up in his plane to see some real Christmas lights. He points out the windshield. Lisa looks out and sees: the stars, brighter and clearer than she has ever seen them. She is overwhelmed, and turns to Canyon for comfort.

In Bradbury's original short story, a spacegoing family try to show their son the real meaning of Christmas. The father takes the boy through his spaceship and into a viewing chamber where a vast window reveals the whole vista of space. The story is very short - just a couple of pages - but the central image is powerful. Ren Wicks' painting for the original magazine appearance of the story beautifully captures the awestruck response of the boy (see left).

In this Steve Canyon episode, Bradbury has completely recast the story. The visual (and budgetary) limitations of 1950s television mitigate against anything as exquisite as Bradbury's original prose or Wicks' painting. Nevertheless, the classic cinematic montage technique of showing Lisa/what she sees/how she reacts works like a charm.

Where the original story is really just an episode, without much character or plot, this TV episode is fully rounded - or as rounded as possible in a 25 minute film. Lisa is holding out against everything Canyon can offer her, and remains isolated from the world unless and until he can break through to her. Revealing the stars to her breaks her emotionally (in a feelgood way; don't worry, this is a sentimental Christmas episode). She turns to him for comfort, so resolving her antithesis to Canyon, planes and Christmas.

The episode is directed by Don Taylor, and is deceptively simple in its construction. Taylor makes excellent use of space. On two occasions he has Lisa completely isolated in the frame: once when all her friends have eagerly run off to board the plane (she doesn't want to join them, she hates planes); and again when all her friends have run up to the massive Christmas tree. The tree itself is put up inside a vast hangar, no doubt an undressed soundstage in reality.

It should be noted that Bradbury receives sole "teleplay" credit, but shares the "story" credit with Sidney Carroll, who would later be Oscar-nominated for the film The Hustler. Although I have no firm information on this, I would assume that this means that the displaced persons element of the story comes from Carroll.

This episode has only come back into circulation thanks to the restoration efforts of John R. Ellis and his team, who have overseen the DVD release of the entire Steve Canyon series. The picture and sound quality on the DVD is excellent, and most episodes have informative audio commentaries. According to the commentary on "The Gift", Bradbury was not completely happy with this production, although it is difficult to see why. Perhaps there were some behind the scenes difficulties that we are not privy to.

For more information on the Steve Canyon DVD series, including ordering details, visit Steve Canyon On DVD.

Information sources:
Terrace, V. (1979) The Complete Encyclopedia of Television Programmes 1947-79. New York: A.S.Barnes and Co.
Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com)
Museum of Broadcast Communications (www.museum.tv)
John R. Ellis (email, July 2009)
The Classic TV Archive (http://www.geocities.com/TelevisionCity/Stage/2950/index.html)

Illustration for the original magzine appearance of Bradbury's short story "The Gift", inEsquire, December 1952. Painting by Ren Wicks. (Click to enlarge.)

 

The first book appearance of "The Gift" was in A Medicine for Melancholy (1959).

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(c) Phil Nichols 2003, 2009

Page updated 30 June, 2009