Friday, March 11, 2011

General Motors Theatre: "Billy Budd" - a toupological analysis.

"Billy Budd" is an episode of the Canadian anthology series General Motors Theatre (known as Encounter in the US). The live telecast, which aired May 3rd 1955, starred a host of familiar names, including Basil Rathbone as Captain Edward Fairfax "Starry" Vere of the British naval warship HMS Indomitable, Douglas Campbell as the Master-at-Arms Claggart (note: some sites, including incorrectly credit Rathbone as playing Claggart), Patrick Macnee as officer Lt. Seymore and William Shatner as a young seaman.

The story is set in 1798 amidst the background of British concerns at militarism stemming from revolution-era France and is an adaptation of an unfinished novella of the same name by Herman Melville. There are evidently some minor differences and truncations between that work and this TV adaptation (for example, the ship is called the Bellipotent in correct later drafts of the book), but the stories are essentially the same.

Young seaman Billy Budd transfers from the homeward bound merchant vessel Rights-of-Man onto the Indomitable as it monitors waters off the southern English coast.

His indomitably (the names in Billy Budd often seem to underscore traits and emotions - Captain Vere: virtue, truth...) happy and innocent spirit and all round enthusiasm brings Budd the immediate friendship of his fellow seamen.

That is, all except the paranoid and sadistic Master-at-Arms Claggart. There's a goodness in Budd that evidently threatens Claggart's world-view - one of ruthless discipline that has no place for such souls as young Budd.

Captain Vere, meanwhile, runs a firm but fair ship and is respected by his crew.

He too comes to admire Budd's enthusiasm. The ship could use some cheering up, as the British Navy has been rocked by a series of mutinies, and tempers have become frayed.

Budd is soon promoted to the post of foretopman...

But all is not well on the good ship. Rumors of Claggart's brutality have reached the captain. Should a firm hand be welcomed to prevent the risk of further mutinies or is the Master-at-Arms a potential dangerous tyrant?

Claggart's obsession with Budd escalates. Surely someone so inherently good and decent must harbor a secret, destructive agenda, lest Claggart's comfortably miserable world be shaken to its core by a person so unlike himself.

The situation comes to a head when Budd catches an officer about to commit an act of supreme mutiny: attempting to kill Claggart.

Budd, eternally decent, disarms his shipmate in order to save Claggart's life.

Claggart is correct that mutinies against him are being hatched...

But he then decides, without any evidence at all, that the man to blame is none other than the innocent Budd - the man who saved his life.

Claggart invents a tale of mutineering against the lad, who, suffering from a speech impediment, is unable to defend himself properly. Claggart's lies and Budd's sense of honor lead him to momentarily snap and strike the ship's head of security.

But Budd's brief temper fit results in some very serious consequences: Claggart is dead...

The Captain convenes an extraordinary drumhead court-martial to determine how to deal with Budd's murderous act.

An amoral and universally loathed man who falsely accused a good man is dead. Can't Budd's deed just be forgotten?

Or must the law be respected above all else?

At stake is Billy Budd's life, as he faces the death penalty for the murder of a superior officer. What will the court decide?

And that's where we'll leave the story...

So what to make of all this? On the negative side, this 1955 production of "Billy Budd" is a little clunky, with occasional wobbly, awkward camera-work, less-than-polished sound and actors sometimes slightly flubbing their lines - no doubt a result of the fact that this was live TV in its very earliest days. Should television compete with (and try to be more like) theater or cinema? In the mid 1950s, these answers were still being addressed, in part through trial and error...

But asides from these technical flaws, we found "Billy Budd" to be thoroughly enjoyable. A very simple story focused on the exploration of consequences and the epic dilemmas that extraordinary events can bring about - very, very Star Trek-like! At play is the notion of vigilantism - if a person breaks the law in order to correct an injustice and do an ultimate good, should the breaking of the law be overlooked? Or is the law the law - period. That is the very simple conundrum presented by Melville's story.

It's no surprise to find that Billy Budd has been adapted numerous times for both the small and large screens. And this 1955 effort, one of the earliest of the screen adaptations, largely succeeds in conveying the strength of this epic tale.

Avengers star Patrick Macnee (left).

Rathbone and Campbell give particularly strong performances, while young Bill Shatner, with his faux Irish accent (contrasting with the otherwise authentically British cast), doesn't quite match the nuanced expressiveness of his illustrious, and at this point far more experienced, on-screen colleagues.

At times, Billy Budd's (Finnegan-esque) perkiness seems just a little affected and strained, perhaps partly due to the restrictive shackles of Bill Shatner having to perform with a heavy accent. That said, the actor certainly has a memorable and distinct on-screen presence (deliberately designed to contrast as much as possible with his weary, gloomy shipmates) and for a young performer, getting noticed is what it's all about. It's not, we think, a dull of poor performance at all - and it is most definitely, unarguably Shatner!

Let's move swiftly to the hair...

The initial thought that we will try to put into words is one many of you readers are likely having too, glancing at Bill Shatner's hair in "Billy Budd". Wow! We've explored toupees, we've explored that brief period in the late 1950s when Bill Shatner was trying his best to spruce up his ever-thinning hair - but who would have ever imagined this?

A major performance in which Bill Shatner has (real) thick, long, curly hair flailing in the wind and not a toupee or careful combing technique in sight! And there's more yet. This is the only example we have of Bill Shatner altering the color of not only the sides but also the top of his own real hair. At this point, he still had plenty and experiments such as bleaching evidently presented no problems at all!

In one scene, Bill Shatner's hair is ruffled considerably, and he even runs his hand through it with the kind of careless abandon that would be unthinkable in only a few short years...

Here's the clip:

The ruffling in this scene is caused by a rather energetic fight in which, at one point, Budd's opponent actually places his foot on Bill Shatner's hair!:

Comparing this fight to Captain Kirk's escapades in Star Trek, one can see a key difference. In Star Trek, free flowing fights could only go so far before hairsylists had to jump in and correct excessive imperfections in Bill Shatner's lace...

...but in "Billy Budd" there are no such concerns evident. There's an almost ballet-like freedom visible in Bill Shatner as he fights in the scene - no concerns about hair being dislodged, no need to protect the toupee from a fall, no concerns about lids flipping, bald patches showing, lace lines peeling. In that sense, what we have here is truly remarkable in its uniqueness.

But as thick as Bill Shatner's hair is in "Billy Budd", there are some very slight clues on display that suggest the hair may not be on as firm a footing as the young actor may have hoped for (in light of the fact that his father was bald).

Even at this point, the hair at the sides of the twenty-four-year-old actor's head is noticeably thicker than that at the top. It's all there still...

...but sometimes the shape gives off unmistakable signals of what is to come:

Yet, despite such warning signs - ones that may be easy to spot with hindsight - what we can surely savor most in this 1955 TV drama is a major Bill Shatner performance in which matters of the the toupee or of concealing thinning are entirely absent. That in itself makes "Billy Budd" a "must-see".

Sadly, "Billy Budd" isn't available to purchase commercially, but a time-coded copy can be found on-line (note: we've undertaken significant sound enhancement for the clips in our review). A simple, yet powerful and entertaining story aided by a strong cast - we certainly recommend it.

Note: We know we have readers in Japan, and are thoughts and prayers are with you and all the people of your country as you cope with the tragedy unfolding there...


  1. This time-coded copy can be obtained from

  2. Oh, and I guess you meant "theater or cinema?"

  3. Thanks, Tintorera. Corrected. -ST

  4. This role was just too difficult and demanding for Bill Shatner at that point in his career. It does come off as affected and unconvincing. He gave it the old college try, though. How bizarre that what may have been the most noteworthy thing about this production was his hair!

  5. Shatner for Oscar host 2012!March 12, 2011 at 12:04 PM


    Shatner goes back to an almost TJ Curly style for recent award ceremony???


    He's gone back to the thick wig today

  7. A Blonde not Bald Bill

  8. I wonder if the dye job was a factor in his future hair loss (apart from genes)?

    Excellent post ST.

  9. An excellent follicle dissection! And thanks for showing me the way to finally seeing Shat's Billy Budd! I've been wanting to see it for some time.

  10. James Toupeerius KirkMarch 13, 2011 at 11:28 PM

    Like MVPisoOnline mentioned; that was the first thing coming to mind when I saw the pictures of the blonde Shatner.
    That dye job was surely supporting the damage of the hair roots!
    By the Way, I think blonde doesn't look good on Shatner!Odd and unsauitable!

    And @ ShatToupBlog: Great Job!!!Thumbs up for this review.

  11. Toupee or not toupee!March 14, 2011 at 12:28 AM

    Billy Budd? More like Billy Idol!

  12. Shat toupee blog mentioned:

  13. On a sober note....must have been devastating for the young Bill to start losing such a mop of hair at such a young age, he clearly has never got over looks like he's gone to some extreme lengths to get his hair back over the years...

  14. tintorera, Hi. I was trying to enter wont let me enter that website. What's going on? Let me know :)

  15. Thanks for your comments! We've been trying to encourage non-Blogger-registered commenters to select the "Name/ URL" option in the "Comment as" tab and type in a username (anything at all). This eliminates the "Anonymous" tag and helps other commenters to know who is saying what (avoiding multiple cases of "Anonymous"). Thanks! -ST

  16. @Anonymous. Strange indeed. Looks like the site is working fine.

    If it still doesn't work for you, I strongly recommend becoming a member of

    You can also contact me via LiveJournal. Just click my name.

  17. tintorera, it is work. That's strange lol

  18. Where to get this movie? I only saw a fragment on youtube. And I *collect* Billy Budd adaptations.

    He looks so cute <3

    Is the first video's music originally in the film? That's the First Sea Interlude!

  19. Young Bill in bouffant blonde wig mixed with 50's b/w TV quality IMO really, really makes him look like Michael Myers here! In nearly all other works of his, the toup or something else throws off the full Michael Myers (Shatner) mask resemblance, but in this its uncanny!