Welcome to “Emmys Evaluated,” a series that looks at the nominations and wins in the television industry’s foremost awards ceremony and performs some revisionist history to retroactively pick the winners from the categories and nominees the The Television Academy selected.
The 4th Emmy Awards, held February 18, 1952, was the first ceremony that celebrated television from coast-to-coast. Previously, the Emmys only recognized Los Angeles productions, but in reviewing the best in TV from 1951, The Television Academy opened up consideration of nationwide productions. In effect, that meant New York. But the Emmys were still a Hollywood affair, as newly minted stars Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball hosted at the Cocoanut Grove. The 4th Emmys were covered on radio and/or television by KECA, but I wasn’t able to find any vestige of a recorded event.
For this ceremony, the Academy really reined in the number of categories, bringing the 3rd’s 13 down to just six. There’s also a lot of overlap between those categories, also decreasing the total number of nominated shows. The Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Comedian or Comedienne categories also didn’t specify for what performance the nominees were being recognized for. I’ll mention what I was able to track down for those, however.
Like most awards shows, the 4th Emmys left out a few significant things in hindsight. Although nominated in earlier ceremonies, Milton Berle’s TEXACO STAR THEATER was “snubbed,” as were THE GOLDBERGS, DRAGNET, and (although I think its racism is despicable, its popularity at the time probably should have meant the conservative Academy would nominate it) AMOS & ANDY. YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS took home half of the awards, making it the winningest program with three. But we’ll see how my estimation shook things out!
I’ll mark with an * the actual winner, bold my pick at the top of the list, and rank in order of my enjoyment from there. I’ve denoted shows or episodes that I couldn’t really track down online (specifically for the year for which they were eligible for this ceremony) with a ~. Now let’s get started!
Best Comedy Show
- I LOVE LUCY
- YOU BET YOUR LIFE
- THE GEORGE BURNS AND GRACIE ALLEN SHOW
- THE RED SKELTON SHOW*
- HERB SHRINER TIME~
For as popular and celebrated as it would become, I LOVE LUCY did not win Best Comedy Show for its first season. I think that’s a shame because, although it would get better shortly, the first season of I LOVE LUCY is, without a doubt, the most timeless of the other shows nominated here. YOU BET YOUR LIFE, a game show that was really a vehicle for Groucho Marx’s wisecracks, is also really funny to this day. THE GEORGE BURNS AND GRACIE ALLEN SHOW betrays its radio roots; Burns and Allen didn’t get the benefit of Karl Freund’s remarkable visual innovations for TV on I LOVE LUCY for their show. But the two are of course comedy legends, and there’s stuff to enjoy there, as there is with THE RED SKELTON SHOW. Skelton also looms large in this era of comedy, but his sketches feel the most dated, and his characters on the verge of being annoying at times. I could not track down HERB SHRINER TIME, one in a series of short-lived series that the humorist (a la Will Rogers) hosted. But at the end of the day, all further consideration of these nominees was nominal: I LOVE LUCY handily takes the cake.
Best Dramatic Show
- STUDIO ONE*
- CELANESE THEATRE~
- PHILCO-GOODYEAR TV PLAYHOUSE~
- PULITZER PRIZE PLAYHOUSE~
- ROBERT MONTGOMERY PRESENTS~
Well, as you can see, STUDIO ONE is the default winner of Best Dramatic Show. At this time in TV history, programs were either transmitted live or recorded to kinescope. In either event, they were often shortly lost because no one else was capturing the live program, or kinescope/tapes were wiped to make way for new episodes and shows. So, the one-season, boring-company-sponsored CELANESE THEATRE couldn’t be tracked down. PHILCO-GOODYEAR TV PLAYHOUSE, PULITZER PRIZE PLAYHOUSE, and ROBERT MONTGOMERY PRESENTS, all well-respected shows with episodes still surviving from other years, were also unavailable for any 1951 episodes. It should be noted that all of the programs nominated for Best Dramatic Show were anthologies, with no character or plot through line from week-to-week; they were immensely popular in the early years of television, and dominated the dramatic discipline in those years. More so than comedy shows from the era, these dramatic anthologies can really feel dated. That was the case with STUDIO ONE, with one Charlton Heston episode playing quite stale (we’ll get to that shortly).
Best Variety Show
- YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS*
- THE COLGATE COMEDY HOUR
- ALL STAR REVUE
- THE FRED WARING SHOW
- TOAST OF THE TOWN~
It’s interesting to see what was defined as a “variety show” and what was defined as a “comedy show” for the 4th Emmys. YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS, the legendary comedy incubator of great comedy minds like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, was carried by the talents of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. But I could imagine THE RED SKELTON SHOW being interpreted as a variety show in the same way YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS, or THE COLGATE COMEDY HOUR, or ALL STAR REVUE were. Speaking of those other shows: THE COLGATE COMEDY HOUR was decently enjoyable because of its early hosting by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Their early team routines are pretty funny, although I get why some are annoyed by Lewis. ALL STAR REVUE was the rebranding of FOUR STAR REVUE, which had moved away from the four-way hosting rotation of just Ed Wynn, Danny Thomas, Jack Carson, and Jimmy Durante to a more expansive group of guest MCs that included them as well. In the episode I watched, Durante was alright, but ALL STAR REVUE’s writing doesn’t hold up, like much else from the era. THE FRED WARING SHOW is probably the lone (surviving) true variety show on the list, as a vehicle for the titular bandleader. He’s not a comedian, and it shows, as his screen presence is a bit muted. It gets special notice, however, because of a 1951 episode that featured Walt Disney in a promotional tie-in to the release of ALICE OF WONDERLAND, complete with a big ol’ live action, theatrical staging of the story. TOAST OF THE TOWN is the predecessor to THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, hosted by the big man himself, but I couldn’t find a record of it from 1951. At the end of all this, however, it should be made clear that YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS is very clearly the best show here.
- Sid Caesar*
- Charlton Heston
- Thomas Mitchell
- Vaughn Taylor
- Walter Hampden~
- Robert Montgomery~
YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS was so good, mostly, because of the efforts of its two star performers. One was the creative force behind the show, Sid Caesar. Along with Lucille Ball, Caesar was probably the funniest person on TV at the time. His naturalistic characters still shine with a wit and commitment that yield the chuckles and guffaws. Caesar’s performance is more electrifying, by a wide margin, than the stagey, dramatic performances of his fellow nominees. Charlton Heston was, of course, a good actor, but his STUDIO ONE episode, “A Bolt of Lightning,” was a pretty melodramatic telling of the life of American Revolution-era lawyer James Otis Jr. Veteran actors Thomas Mitchell and Vaughn Taylor gave better efforts elsewhere, but from what I can tell from TALES OF TOMORROW’s “The Crystal Egg” and MARTIN KANE, PRIVATE EYE’s “A Jockey Is Murdered” (the nominees’ appearances, respectively), the material is just too hokey. I couldn’t find anything from Walter Hampden and Robert Montgomery’s 1951 IMDB credits; the latter stands to reason, since his own show also wasn’t extant. As mentioned earlier, these performing categories did not give explicit reference to the performances being recognized. Where it was not obvious, I consulted IMDB and watched what could be found online.
- Imogene Coca*
- Mary Sinclair
- Maria Riva
- Helen Hayes~
- Margaret Sullavan~
Imogene Coca, as the counterpoint to Sid Caesar on YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS, often upstaged him as the strongest comic performer in a sketch. As with Caesar, her funny appeal continues, in stark contrast to the creaky records of Mary Sinclair and Maria Riva’s performances. Both guest starred on thriller anthology series SUSPENSE, which actually and probably should have been nominated for Best Dramatic Show. It is certainly the best of the ones I’ve watched for 1951, with more compelling writing and acting as a whole. Sinclair is given more to do than Riva in “On a Country Road,” a paranoid episode in which a couple are stranded in the middle of nowhere with the threat of an escaped lunatic. In “Go Home Dead Man,” Riva plays against Jackie Cooper as his lover, revealed to be a foreign spy; for most of the episode, however, she plays the dutiful girlfriend. Helen Hayes and Margaret Sullavan’s 1951 TV appearances could not be found. It was easy choosing Coca as the winner here.
Best Comedian or Comedienne
- Lucille Ball (I LOVE LUCY)
- Sid Caesar (YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS)
- Imogene Coca (YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS)
- Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin (COLGATE COMEDY HOUR)
- Red Skelton (THE RED SKELTON SHOW)*
- Jimmy Durante (ALL STAR REVUE)
- Herb Shriner (HERB SHRINER TIME)~
The distinction between the acting categories and comedian categories feels a bit dated, let alone the distinction between male and female comedians with the word “comedienne.” For example, I think Lucille Ball was doing more “acting” on I LOVE LUCY, while Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca were displaying the comic skills on YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS that you would assign to a “comedian” today. In any event, as much as I love Caesar and Coca, Ball still stands as the more lasting performer from 1951. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis had some good sketches on COLGATE COMEDY HOUR, Red Skelton was fun, Durante seemed a little tired, and Herb Shriner wasn’t able to be judged. All of these performers have already been covered. But it’s fitting to go out from this “evaluation” recognizing Ball and I LOVE LUCY, by far the best products of 1951 television.
Sixty-nine years later, my opinion alignment with The Television Academy of 1951 is four for six. It’s certainly interesting that those two gaps concerned I LOVE LUCY and Lucille Ball. But in this event, I too saw YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS as the big winner with three awards, from what was available and nominated. Although the 4th Emmys Awards ceremony was a smaller affair, the TV shows on display with its nominations were representative of the slowly but surely growing quality of the medium.