Sunday, September 04, 2011

A Matter Of Conscience

THE DEFENDERS is one of the most important dramatic series in American television history. MAD MEN fans may remember that a DEFENDERS episode played a large role in the episode "The Benefactor" a couple of years back. The events as described on MAD MEN were not far from the truth, as THE DEFENDERS was a hard-hitting legal program, created by Reginald Rose, that wasn't afraid to tell dramatic stories about important social issues.

One of those issues was birth control, the focus of the February 1, 1964 episode "All the Silent Voices," directed by Gerald Mayer and written by the prolific William Woolfolk. Father-and-son attorneys Lawrence (E.G. Marshall) and Ken (Robert Reed, later the BRADY BUNCH patriarch) Preston agree to defend physician Katherine Tasso (Eileen Heckart), who has been arrested and charged with violating Public Law L176--to wit, the dissemination of birth control literature.

I wasn't aware of this--I suppose because it seems like such backwards thinking--but as recently as the 1970s, it was against the law for some consenting adults to possess contraceptives and illegal for licensed doctors to not only provide them, but also to suggest the use of contraceptives or pass out medical pamphlets discussing birth control. "All the Silent Voices" (which refers to the babies who never would be born because of birth control) examines one such statute through the courageous Dr. Tasso, who stands to lose her job and possibly her husband (James Gregory) in her effort to stand up for a moral right.

I haven't seen "All the Silent Voices"--THE DEFENDERS is never rerun nor is it on DVD, for some reason--but I have read Roger Fuller's 1964 Pocket Books adaptation of Woolfolk's teleplay. It's an intelligent, brief (159 pages) morality play strongly anchored by Lawrence Preston, whose ambivalent feelings about birth control (back to those "silent voices" again) don't prevent him from respecting his client's views or defending her in a court weighing heavily against her (after all, she admits she did break the law as written).

To stretch a 50-minute teleplay to 159 pages, Fuller (actually Don Tracy) has added some padding, including a subplot involving an oily politician hoping to gain some votes by backing Dr. Tasso's cause that I doubt was included in the episode. What stands out about ALL THE SILENT VOICES is the respect the characters have for their opponents' point of view and the honest discussions they can have.

Like the television series that spawned it, ALL THE SILENT VOICES is an interesting adult take on an important issue of the day.


R.A.M.'67 said...

I've heard and read a lot of good things about The Defenders. It seems to be a notable holdout in classic TV courtroom dramas from the '60s available on DVD.

What could be holding up its release? One would think the recent remake would generate interest in the original.

Marty McKee said...

The recent DEFENDERS was not a remake, even though it was about a young guy/old guy lawyer team. However, clips from THE DEFENDERS have shown up on MAD MEN and BOSTON LEGAL in recent years. I understand that there isn't a large audience for dramas of this vintage, but considering other series like ARREST & TRIAL have gotten DVD releases, one would think a true classic like this one would move a few units. It could be just a matter of the rights holders wanting too much to license it out for DVD.

R.A.M.'67 said...

Ah! So the recent Defenders was basically a "reboot". Thanks for clarifying this.

Considering The Defenders won a LOT of Emmy Awards, one would assume it would've gotten to DVD by now; too bad....

I have both sets of Arrest and Trial. It's a pretty good show, especially the episode with Roddy McDowall, which was nominated for an Emmy. However, as much as I like Chuck Connors and Ben Gazzara, it can be argued they could've swapped roles without adverse effect to the series!