General Motors Theatre – “Billy Budd” (04/26/1955)

The only extant television appearance for Shatner during his formative era at the CBC.

Shatner (from everything I know) made at least 19 appearances in CBC television programs from 1954-1956. Of these, only one is viewable. That one is an episode of General Motors Theatre, “Billy Budd.” This is a review of that episode.

That’s right, folks! It’s time for a gen-u-ine review, complete with pictures and videos! Break out the champagne (or the harder stuff) and settle in for this (unintentionally?) homoerotic production of “Billy Budd.” I promise to be gentle.

“Billy Budd” is an adaption of famed Moby Dick author Herman Melville’s last published novel (or novella…Wikipedia goes back and forth on what exactly to label it.) Prior to writing Billy Budd, Melville had focused on poetry exclusively for three decades. Billy Budd itself started off as an epic poem, but soon morphed into dramatic prose. Melville worked on it off and on for the last 5 years of his life, ultimately leaving it in a rather confused but mostly finished state at the time of his death.

After several (sometimes aborted) attempts to decipher his writings and get Billy Budd into shape, the novel was finally published posthumously in 1924, 33 years after Melville’s passing. However, the published versions prior to 1962 are considered by most to be “incorrect” in that they suffer from poor transcription and misinterpretation of Melville’s notes. I’ve read neither version, and am not about to. I’ve got too much Shatnering to do, although it’s worth noting that this live 1955 TV adaptation is now considered to be based on the compromised version. But who gives a shit, amirite? It’s got William Shatner in it and that’s good enough for me.

Let’s set sail with seaman Shatner!

The program opens on the deck of the H.M.S. Indomitable in 1798. There the master-at-arms, John Claggart (Douglas Campbell), watches as the foretopman slowly makes his way down from his perch high above. When the sailor nears the bottom of the netting he falls to the deck heavily, obviously in great distress. Several of the men lift him up and one, Jenkins (Max Helpmann), says that he will take the man to sickbay. But Claggart stops him immediately. He questions whether the sailor is really sick or only pretending to be so. Jenkins argues with the master-at-arms, telling him that the sailor is obviously far too ill to perform his duties at the top of the foremast. Claggart strikes Jenkins in a rage and forces the pleading and ill sailor to once again climb the high mast. As the man complies, Claggart watches, laughing all the while. In very simple terms, Claggart is introduced immediately as a world-class asshole.

Below deck, Jenkins and the other crewman rail on about how much they hate Claggart. Jenkins even pulls out his knife and makes reference to killing him soon. The men go silent (and Jenkins hides the knife) however when an officer comes down the stairs leading the young, handsome, beautiful, pure, innocent, angelic and platinum blonde (!) Billy Budd (William Shatner) down to the crew quarters. Billy has just come aboard from another ship and, unlike many of the crew who were pressed into service against their will, he is a willing volunteer in the British Navy (one clear deviation from Melville’s book.) His only defect is that he stutters when he gets nervous, anxious or frightened.

Now, I wasn’t listing all of those descriptive superlatives used to describe Billy Budd in the paragraph above (solely) for comedic effect. Throughout the program there are an embarrassing number of references to how beautiful and pure and angelic Billy is. Clearly, he is set up as the very embodiment of goodness and innocence, soon to clash with the equally described embodiment of evil, Claggart. But the references to Budd are so numerous, so over-the-top, so rapturously delivered by the actors in the show that I soon began to wonder if there wasn’t some major subtext I was missing. Below are just some of the lines spoken about Shatner’s character in the show:

  • “Handsomely done, young fellow, handsomely done! And handsome is as handsome did it, too.”
  • “So, you come aboard with nothing but your face to recommend you.”
  • “You made a good impression on the captain, Billy Budd. You have a pleasant way with you.”
  • “You would see it too were it not for those eyes of yours that light so kindly on your fellow men.”
  • “Perhaps it is you who is not like everybody else, Billy Budd. You leaving a wake of love wherever you pass!”
  • “If I had a son, I would hope for one like Budd.”
  • “He seems so dangerously perfect.”
  • “I hope his charm’s contagious. I wish we had more like him.”
  • “Men cannot stand much perfection. It’s a disease we stamp out at its first rash showing. Yes, that boy is in harm’s way, I fear it.”
  • “Sweet innocence. Sweet goodness.”
  • “And to think, I could have watched him grow into the comely wholeness of manhood!”
  • “You’ll note but his fair face, underneath lies a man trap!”

Brief aside: Let’s say that you are the producer of General Motors Theatre, and you are tasked with casting the upcoming production of “Billy Budd.” You read the script, and see all of the references to the character of Billy bulleted above. You think briefly on which young actor could possibly play the title role with such high standards set. And then it comes to you…of course! William Shatner! That handsome young actor would be just perfect! Why, you yourself often wondered how someone as good looking as William Shatner hadn’t already been gang-pressed into service aboard a navy vessel crewed by a dozens of sexually deprived seaman! Genius casting, good man!

Upon further research I soon discovered that, indeed, some scholars believe that the book is actually about (at least partially) homosexuality and the repression of it. Namely, that Claggart is a homosexual who is attracted to Billy but cannot or will not act on that attraction. Torn between his duty as an officer and his raging sexual orientation crisis, he has, over the years, become an embittered and hateful human being. After meeting Billy Budd and feeling the intense sexual attraction that we all feel when we gaze into William Shatner’s eyes, he soon turns that hatred onto Billy…knowing that he must destroy that which he lusts for lest he himself be consumed by the passionate fires raging within. After watching this production, I can confirm that this is a perfectly valid interpretation.

I’d hit that.

Anyway, back to the program at hand. While Billy chats with his new shipmates, Claggart comes down and begins talking to the handsome young seaman. It is in this exchange that one of Shatner’s two great deficiencies as an actor becomes readily apparent: he cannot affect an accent of any kind without sounding like a fucking idiot (his other deficiency being that he can’t sing.) In Melville’s novel, Billy Budd is from Bristol, England. From listening to Shatner’s accent in this TV production, the only conclusion that I can reasonably come to is that this version of Billy Budd is the love child of a pirate wench and the Lucky Charms leprechaun. Check it out in the clip below.

If you can stop yourself from laughing at Shatner’s terribly distracting accent, you’ll hear at the end of that clip the sick sailor that Claggart forced back up into onto the foremast plummeting to his doom (even though the scream goes on far too long, and sounds like he is actually falling into a bottomless chasm.) Jenkins is enraged and pulls his knife to try and murder Claggart, but the master-at-arms easily deflects the blow and knocks the knife from Jenkins’ hand. Smiling, Claggart picks up the knife and hands it right back to Jenkins, who has to be restrained by his shipmates from attacking again. Just then, Captain Vere (Basil Rathbone who, until Benedict Cumberbatch came along, was known as the Sherlock Holmes with the most quintessentially British name of all time) descends into the crew quarters to find out about the dead man and to meet the new sailor, Billy Budd.

In Shatner’s autobiography, Up Till Now, he describes Basil Rathbone’s demeanor and entrance in “Billy Budd” thusly:

The night of the broadcast he really was perfectly calm. This was just another acting job for him. We went on the air and the first act was progressing very well, right until the moment he walked onboard the ship and stepped into a bucket. His foot got caught in the bucket and he couldn’t get it off. The camera shot only his upper body so none of the viewers could see him madly shaking his leg, trying to get his foot out of that bucket. He was working so hard to get his foot free that he forgot his lines. And when he forgot his lines he began to sweat. The rest of us tried to feed him his lines, but that was hard to do because we were too busy laughing. It was like acting in a cartoon: Basil Rathbone had caught his foot in a bucket and was hobbling through the scene. It was a disaster. But fortunately it was seen by only ten million Canadians.

Who knows if Basil Rathbone’s foot is stuck in a bucket? The Shatner knows!

Now, I’ve watched the scene described above several times and the gist of Shatner’s story certainly rings true. Rathbone clearly struggles throughout most of the scene with his lines. From his first entrance, he has some awkward pauses, he steps on other actors’ lines and at one point spouts off a line that seems mostly like gibberish. There is no doubt that Rathbone was having some issues. However, I’m not sure if a bucket was the culprit. There is a bucket on the stage, but if you watch the clip above again you’ll see that Douglas Campbell’s character Claggart kicks it out of the way at the bottom of the stairs long before Rathbone appears. Also, Rathbone first enters by walking down the stairs, and as soon as he pauses halfway down to address the crew, he immediately begins losing his lines. As there was certainly no bucket on the stairs, I think that Rathbone’s issues were more mental and less about any kind of prop malfunction.

But back to Shatner’s accent for just one more minute. In a 1959 CBC interview, Basil Rathbone brings up an issue he has with many American Shakespearean actors, specifically that they have some “inadequacies of speech.” He says that they don’t have to have British accents, but that they shouldn’t have southern accents, or mid-western accents or Oxford accents. He says that many actors don’t focus on their speech and accents nearly enough, and that he thinks they should speak with what he calls a “universal English” accent. When the CBC interviewer asks about Canadian actors who demonstrate Rathbone’s ideal, he says “I’ll give you three right away! Young Shatner, Dougie Campell and Vic Plummer!”

Now, set aside that Rathbone meant Chris Plummer for his last example…how thrilling must it have been for Shatner to hear the great Basil Rathbone mention him by name as an example of the perfect Shakespearean accent! Of course, then I wonder why in the world Rathbone would have ever said this after working with Shatner on “Billy Budd.” I mean, there are something like 20 actors in this production with speaking lines and the only one with an atrocious accent is “young Shatner!” I guess this is Melville, not Shakespeare, so Rathbone’s point can still be valid…but wow, is this accent hilariously bad.

After Vere and Claggart leave, Billy’s crewmates warn him about the master-at-arms and his evil ways. Billy can’t believe it. He only sees the good in people and can’t imagine that Claggart could mean him or anyone else harm. Billy may be handsome, and angelic, and good…but he’s also just a little touched in that special way. Again, that is the only conclusion that I can come to from watching Shatner’s performance in the lead role.

Over the next few minutes we come to two scenes that lay out the main conflicts in the story. The first is a scene between Lt. Seymore (Patrick Macnee, later star of BBC’s The Avengers) and Captain Vere. Here we find that Vere knows that Claggart is evil, and that he knows he disobeyed the captain’s orders when he sent the sick man aloft. Seymore asks what he is going to do about it, and Vere responds that he is going to wait for Claggart to make a really big mistake and then he will use the law to crush him. Until then, he needs the order that Claggart brings to the ship’s crew, an order desperately needed as the British Navy was dealing with a spate of dramatic mutinies by impressed sailors all across the fleet. So here we see the conflict between what is right (getting rid of Claggart now because he is clearly an evil person) and the necessary and orderly (retaining him because he keeps the order on the ship so well.)

The second scene is between Claggart and an old man, The Dansker, (Norman Ettlinger) on the deck of the ship. It comes right after the scene shown below between Claggart and Budd, which is so highly charged with homoerotic undertones that I almost needed a cigarette after viewing it.

So Claggart retreats and finds the old sailor, who spits oracle-like wisdom to all those who’ll listen. Claggart complains about Billy and The Dansker remarks that Claggart actually reminds him of Billy Budd. Claggart, astonished, asks how this could possibly be so. The sailor responds, “You have half the tooth and Billy Budd the other. He can’t see there’s evil in the world and you won’t see the good…and you hate him for it.” This is the more standard conflict between what is set up to be pure goodness (Billy Budd) and pure evil (Claggart.)

Soon, the angelic and spritely Billy is promoted to the post of foretopman. On a night soon after, the still angry crewman Jenkins sneaks out onto the deck with his knife intending to murder Claggart. As he crosses the deck towards the master-at-arms, he is discovered and confronted by Billy. What follows is a rather hilarious fight scene, one where we can see glimpses of the future fighting style of one James T. Kirk in its embryonic form.

Claggart, furious at Budd for interfering with his plans to trap and kill the mutinous Jenkins, vows to destroy Billy by charging him with mutiny. First he gets one of the crew to try and get Billy to actually join a mutiny. When that doesn’t work (because of course Billy would never do that) Claggart decides simply to lie to the Captain and say that Billy is fanning the flames of rebellion on the ship. Vere, of course, doesn’t believe him. He knows that the perfect Billy Budd would never even dream of mutiny and, seeing that this might be his opportunity to get rid of Claggart once and for all, calls Billy Budd up to answer to the charges.

When confronted with Claggart’s accusions, Billy can’t deny them because his nervous stutter gets in the way. Instead, he decides to go all Sling Blade on Claggart’s ass, as you can see in the clip below.

Behold the awesome power of Le Shat! Like Bill’s first onscreen performance in The Butler’s Night Off, just a couple of blows from Shatner’s mighty fists (plus a hilariously slow fall down the stairs) can be enough to totally destroy a man.

Vere, as duty demands, convenes a court martial panel consisting of three officers led by Lt. Seymore. Vere is not on the court, acting instead as the only witness to the offense. After Vere testifies, and Billy confirms the account, the old wise sailor also comes forward to tell the court that Claggart was indeed a liar and was plotting Billy’s death. Seymore and the other two officers deliberate for about 2 minutes before declaring that Billy should be immediately acquitted  because his actions were justified and Claggart was an evil, despicable person. Indeed, one of the officers says “I’d have struck him (Claggart), too!”

Open and shut, right? Wrong. Vere steps in before the court can pronounce their acquittal and asks to speak. He delivers a persuasive argument that, justified or not, the fact that Billy struck and killed a commanding officer cannot be denied or ignored. Indeed, under maritime law even the blow itself is punishable by death. Allowing Billy to escape the sentence proscribed under the law, Vere says, might play as a sign of weakness and cause more mutiny and anarchy across the entire fleet. He argues quite persuasively that this court is not free to choose acquittal as if they were private citizens in a court of law…they are instead officers, with a larger duty to uphold order and maritime law.

So the court (and Vere) must wrestle with what they know is moral and decent and true (acquitting Billy) and what they know is their rightful duty and responsibility as officers in the Royal Navy (condemning him to death.) After a tense argument between the men, they are all forced to concede that they must condemn Billy to death for his actions, though they all would save him if only they could think of some loophole in the law.

Sorry, Billy. You are just too beautiful and too perfect to live.

The captain calls Billy up to his quarters and delivers the news. Billy can’t understand why, and asks Vere to explain why this decision is right. Vere talks more about duty and how he must perform it, and he also explains to Billy that there is both good and evil in the world, though Claggart and Billy could only see one and were blind to the other. He says that Billy never understood that true evil existed, and that most men learn to navigate the middle ground between the two extremes. In other words, Claggart was too evil, and Billy too pure and good, for either of them to live. It still doesn’t make any sense to Billy, but he completely trusts the captain and his decision and submits to the verdict.

Billy accepts his own hanging rope.

That morning, the verdict is read to the entire assembled crew on the deck of the ship. Billy is given his noose. He must make one more climb up to the yardarm, put the rope around his neck…and jump. The other men, upon hearing this verdict and seeing Billy begin to climb, start to rebel against the officers watching over them. Shatner, seeing this incipient mutiny, turns to the men and yells “Hear me! Captain knows the rights of this…better than you or me.” Then, turning to the captain, he smiles and says “God bless Captain Vere.” He turns and climbs and, as the camera rests on Vere’s face, jumps to his death.

Despite some shaky line readings (almost all by Rathbone who seemed lost a number of times) and Shatner’s terrible accent, “Billy Budd” is a largely successful hour of television. It’s way too on the nose in most places but this was probably true of the source material as well, and most likely exacerbated by the short amount of time allotted to tell the story and to the nature of live TV. And after Billy kills Claggart, the production presents a nuanced and ultimately persuasive argument in favor of the verdict against Billy. Even though everyone, including the audience, knows that Billy is good and should live, there is an equally compelling counter-argument presented that might sway all but the most compassionate viewers.

Shatner himself is largely great in the role of Billy Budd, (again, except for that accent) and worked easily and fluidly within the confines of the live broadcast. Unlike Rathbone and some of the other cast, he never forgets his lines, steps on anyone else’s lines, or misses his mark. In addition, we get the only example of platinum blonde Shatner that I can think of in his entire cannon of work, and certainly for his work before the Shatner hairpiece era.

His last year working professionally, at Stratford and then for multiple live television productions at the CBC, prepared him well for this starring role. And after a full television season hustling to get work with the new CBC television department, it was time to pack his bags once again and head back to Stratford.

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Shat Level: 4 = Shat-tastic!

Shatner’s Web

It’s time to detail all of the connections between General Motors Theatre’s “Billy Budd” and other Shatner appearances! 

This was the first and only time that Shatner appeared in anything with Basil Rathbone, the British actor most famous for his iconic portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the 1930’s and 40’s. Rathbone eventually began to resent Holmes because he felt typecast by the role, and concentrated more on stage appearances in his later years.

Douglas Campbell, who played the evil Claggart in “Billy Budd,” would never appear with Shatner on TV again. However, he was a pretty celebrated Shakespearean actor who performed at Stratford many, many times including with Shatner in Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew, Oedipus Rex, Julius Caesar, King Oedipus, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry V. His last appearance with Shatner was as the title character in the 1957 film version of the play, Oedipus Rex, directed by Tyrone Guthrie.

This was the second and final time that the great Patrick Macnee would star in a production with Shatner. The first was for Scope’s “The Verdict Was Treason” just a few short weeks prior.

Donald Ewer had previously appeared with Shatner in another episode of General Motors Theatre, “The Black Eye.” He would go on to appear with him in 1960’s Festival production of “Julius Caesar.” And then 34 years later he would play a cab driver in an installment of Shatner’s short-lived Tekwar series, “Teklab.” I wonder if they spoke of their past history…most likely they never even shared the same filming days and Donald Ewer was left to wonder, “What if?”

After fighting with young Shatner in this production as the angry crewman Jenkins, Max Helpmann would appear with The Shat one more time in the 1956 Stratford production of Henry V.

This was the last time that I could connect the actor Andrew Anthony with William Shatner. He may have previously appeared with Bill in an episode (episodes?) of Space Command and definitely appeared with him in an On Camera episode, “Man in 308.”

Donald Ettlinger, who played the old and wise sailor, actually pulled double duty on this episode; he acted in it and wrote the screenplay adaptation. Despite being a double threat, he never worked with Shatner again, either in front of or behind the camera.

And what do have here? Silvio Narizzano, who was credited with the “story” for William Shatner’s very first professional acting job in The Butler’s Night Off was also a producer for “The Big Leap,” another episode of General Motors Theatre. This was the last time that I see his name associated with Shatner.

Sydney Newman, future creator of Doctor Who, acted as producer or supervising producer in the Shatner-featuring CBC/General Motors Theatre episode “The Man Who Ran Away,” “I Like It Here,” “The Black Eye,” “Never Say No” and “The Coming Out of Ellie Swan,” as well as for The Canadian Howdy Doody Show. After this, he would do the same for the episode “Forever Galatea.”

Further Studies

This episode of General Motors Theatre is not commercially available on DVD, and I didn’t see it streaming anywhere obvious on the web as of this writing. However, a quick Google search for a DVD copy of it did turn up a few places you can find it if you would like to view it yourself!

If you are looking for another entertaining review of this program, check out the blog Shatner’s Toupee. Of course, the focus is once again on his hair but there are more pictures and videos to view if you are so inclined.

To read a short paper written in 2006 about the Billy Budd and its possible homosexual subtext, go here. Amazingly, the original novel is even more overt in places…including the passage below where Claggart first encounters Billy Budd after Budd had spilled some soup on the ground:

Claggart, the master-at-arms, official rattan in hand, happened to be passing along…Stepping over (the soup), he was proceeding on his way without comment, since the matter was nothing to take notice of under the circumstances, when he happened to observe who it was that had done the spilling…Pausing, he was about to ejaculate something hasty at the sailor, but checked himself, and pointing down to the streaming soup, playfully tapped him from behind with his rattan, saying in a low musical voice peculiar to him at times, ‘Handsomely done, my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it, too!’


Author: Shatner

I give myself to him, William Shatner.

2 thoughts on “General Motors Theatre – “Billy Budd” (04/26/1955)”

  1. Yes, Billy Budd is crammed with homoerotic subtext, and compression into a short teleplay makes it seem even more so, as if that’s ALL the work is about. Billy is intended as a sort of Christ figure with Captain Vere in the position of Pilate, who must act to preserve a command structure lest the ground be laid for mutiny. In 18th and 19th century literature and stagework, physical attractiveness was equated with a good soul and good intentions, so the constant references to Billy’s looks and physical giftedness would have been understood by readers as shortcuts through exposition: beautiful, physically gifted, extremely naive Billy is so different and so good that the malicious Claggart finds Billy’s very existence provocative.

    Watching Rathbone “go up” repeatedly, I wonder if Shatner was conflating a rehearsal with the live broadcast, but who knows? The bucket is there and even though a guy kicked it it away, it might’ve rolled around on its side and arced back toward Rathbone. To me, everybody around Rathbone, especially Shatner, seems extraordinarily focused on keeping their eyes up and focused on Rathbone’s face–as if they didn’t dare look down. Maybe he actually did get his foot stuck in that bucket.

    1. I certainly think it possible that Shatner was conflating rehearsal with the live broadcast, and it’s also certainly possible that they did that scene or the whole thing twice for a west coast audience and so the extant version doesn’t have the bucket? I also certainly think it possible that the bucket came rolling back, but when Claggart kicks it away it makes one hell of a scraping noise…and then is never heard from again. I think if Rathbone had touched it again, then maybe we would have heard it? I don’t know…the mystery of the bucket continues!

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