Out of an awfully dim blue the Maryland Public Television stations have plucked "Studebaker: Less Than They Promised," a 1983 documentary about the rise and demise of an American car. Produced by a South Bend, Ind., TV station, the one-hour film suffers from a provincial perspective that doesn't travel well at all.
But "Studebaker," on Channels 22, 67, and the other MPT stations at 10 tonight, does include generous, funny, piquant little bursts of hip pop history used to illustrate the Studie saga, including made-in-Hollywood feature productions designed to bolster dealer morale. One, "The Studebaker Story," glitteringly traces the company's origins from its wagon-building era to the peace-disturbing day when carriages went horseless once and for all and onward into the bold and visionary future companies always claim as their own.
After a fire destroys the buggy business, all that's left is a sign proclaiming the house motto, "Always Give More than You Promise." Studebaker's reputation was that of an almost endearingly wrong-o, sloppily managed outfit that paternalistically coddled its employes in South Bend until 1963, when at its bleakest hour of many bleak hours, the company abruptly shut down and left hundreds without employment or pensions. Yet a local clan that was featured in another company propaganda film ("A Family of Craftsmen") and once owned five Studebakers among them, is visited again two decades later by the documentary makers, and its members express no particular bitterness toward the company that deserted them.
Studebaker stinted on advertising, perhaps the key piece of mismanagement in its history, according to the documentary. The old Studebaker commercials shown are terrible, but wonderful. "Six husky astronaut trainees like these, seated in comfort!" trumpets a primitive ad for the Lark, the pioneering compact introduced in 1959 and later eclipsed when Detroit's Big Three got into the compact act. The car had "performability" says an announcer, marvelling, "There goes another Lark skedaddling in traffic!"
Before that, there was the Studebaker Champion; a previously unreported Chrysler-like 1956 bail-out of the firm by a nervous President Eisenhower; and a disastrous merger with the ungainly Packard. This marriage was the business equivalent of "two drunks trying to help each other across the road," says a former company executive, and a former union leader recalls, "You were an optimist if you came to work in the morning carrying a lunch bucket," because that meant you expected the company to still be in business at noon.
Among the promotional gambits lavished on the Lark was an appearance by Arlene Francis wearing a dress made from Lark upholstery on Jack Paar's "Tonight Show." It's ironic that virtually nothing from this hysterical era of telemericana, the great Paar reign, has been preserved on film or tape except for a silly clip like this from a night on which Paar was replaced by a guest host. Some of the program's other visual remnants are dubiously cherishable. Gushes narrator Walter Jacobson (a hot-shot on local TV in Chicago) over some scratchy newsreels, "These are the oldest existing films of Studebakers!" Wow.
Among all its other functions, television is the living museum of the air. The Maryland stations have purchased a miscellaneous batch of old TV shows, "The Golden Years of Television," that are airing on Tuesday nights. A pleasantly insignificant documentary like "Studebaker," even poorly and preachily written as it is, might have been grouped with other similar shows as part of a baby-boomy retrospective, a "Way-We-Were" anthology, but that would have taken a wee particle of programming imagination, something not in bounteous supply at public TV stations. Instead, the film, directed by Scott Craig, was just plopped absent-mindedly into the schedule.
It brings to mind a promising subject for another documentary: "Public Television -- The Studebaker of Broadcasting." Or maybe it should be, "The Edsel."