Paul Nickell | Subjects | Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style | Rankings

Studio One: Confessions of a Nervous Man | An Almanac of Liberty | Dino

The Virginian: The Small Parade

Classic Film and Television Home Page (with many articles on directors) | Television Western Articles

Paul Nickell

Paul Nickell is an American television director. He directed 139 episodes of Studio One, a prestigious live TV drama of the 1950's.

Paul Nickell: Subjects

Some common subjects in the films of Paul Nickell:


Subjects: Imagery:

Paul Nickell: Structure and Story Telling

Story Structure:

Paul Nickell: Visual Style

Visual Style:


Here are ratings for various films directed by Paul Nickell. Everything at least **1/2 is recommended.

Studio One:

The Virginian:

Studio One: Confessions of a Nervous Man

Confessions of a Nervous Man (1953) is a delightful comedy. It also highly unusual in its construction, being both an autobiographical work by playwright George Axelrod, and one encompassing many unusual story telling techniques. These techniques are so off trail, that Confessions of a Nervous Man qualifies as an experimental film.

Parts of Confessions of a Nervous Man show a theme and variations construction. There are three versions of a scene from Axelrod's play, each showing how it might be adapted in a different country. Such a variational approach shows up in other Nickell films.

Confessions of a Nervous Man is structured around a serious of phone calls, awaited by a group of people in a room. These calls are suspenseful, even frightening. Such phone calls are also a key feature of An Almanac of Liberty.

Studio One: An Almanac of Liberty

An Almanac of Liberty (1954) is a landmark work, a trenchant political film defending Freedom of Speech. It was created in the McCarthy era, and is designed to defend American values, which were under siege.

An Almanac of Liberty has a powerful effect. It affirms key values. This is one of the key works of American cinema. It should be shown in schools, in civic groups and libraries.

The situation is which the characters find themselves is genuinely terrifying. It can remind one of problems not intended by the authors in 1954. It immediately reminded me of Global Warming: a stark, urgent situation that requires positive action and courage.

Story Structure

An Almanac of Liberty is unusual in being a fantasy. It uses the fantasy to highlight political issues.

It also has a mystery structure, with the characters struggling to understand what is going on, and how it can be changed.

It opens with a non-fiction prologue, in which prominent real-life journalist Charles Collingwood speaks about the show's themes.


An Almanac of Liberty has an impressively complex staging. It has twenty characters, each of whom is on-stage, and often actually on-camera, throughout most of the whole production. The film is full of complex spectacles, showing groups of characters. Each character is individualized, with their own personality and way of behaving. The whole work is like a cross between a stage play and a film.

Men and Women

Men and women behave differently in An Almanac of Liberty, although with some important exceptions. Perhaps this is sexist. The again, perhaps it reflects different realities or world views.

Only men beat up stranger John Carter at the beginning. We don't see their faces. But these are all grown men, in suits, ties and hats. Later, a group of men make moves to search Carter, and later, to expel him from the building. These are all variations of each other, a common Nickell structural approach.

By contrast, the women are concerned with the fantastic nature of the events. They try to restrain their husbands, and re-focus attention to the sinister fantasy that is engulfing them with the darkness and the clock. Perhaps this is women showing fear and expressing emotion, with perhaps a bit of sexist stereotype. But it also represents women focusing on key events and fundamental reality. Their attempts to get their husbands to tone down and turn off their right wing rhetoric also expresses a concern with issues of importance, rather than right wing rabble-rousing.

Women are the ones who discover the problem:

Only the Jewish man Mr. Nathan among the men recognizes and understands and shares the women's concern. He agrees with his wife about the "dream"-like nature of what is going on. Is this because Mr. Nathan consistently has a different, more liberal point of view throughout the show? In any event, he has feelings and perceptions that the other men fail to express, or maybe feel at all.

The most important other discoveries are made by young males, child Mikey and teenager Billy. Mikey sees what is outside the window, Billy discovers the truth at the end. Billy keeps reminding people of what he learned at school. He turns out to be the most insightful character. Both Paul Nickell and Reginald Rose have a deep interest in children and very young people.

Politics and Institutions

Liberal values are most expressed by the newspaper editor Ben Philipps, and people associated with the school, including its principal, and teenage student Billy. These information institutions are seen as the key repositories of traditional American values.

Dr. Slattery also supports political freedoms, and the right of people to express themselves. He is not as aggressive at the editor or principal. But his measured, constant support for core principles helps the situation consistently. Dr. Slattery and the editor are dressed similarly, in suits and sweaters: the mark of an intellectual or educated man in the 1950's. Dr. Slattery also looks a good deal like editor Ben Philipps: the two men seem like doubles in their appearance, dress, and educated background.

It was hard for me to realize that Slattery was a doctor, on initial viewing. His small black doctor's bag was a widely understood symbol of medical men in 1954, and he carries it when first introduced in the show. But his profession is not referred to again in the dialogue. He is listed as Dr. Slattery in the closing credits.

Mrs. Church, as her name suggests, is the only character who talks about religion. At first, she shows religion's dark side, with her assertions that the stranger is demonic. This suggests the Witch Hunt metaphor applied to McCarthyism, and the way that religion has sometimes promoted superstition. At the end though, she offers a prayer for help. This suggestion doesn't solve anything: it is Billy's study in school that makes the key difference. But it is treated respectfully, and perhaps helps: it comes just before the mystery is solved by Billy and others at the end. Mrs. Church is the only woman in the play who consistently thinks in terms of ideas.

Mr. Horace Sweetser turns into one of the film's villains. He is head of the local City Council. One suspects he is a portrait of Fascism in-the-making. He tells the other characters that they don't have to think, just follow him: the fascist "leader principle" in a direct, sinister form. He perhaps represents government officials who have promoted McCarthyism.

The town policemen Ted Franklin also violates the rule of law, when he makes a move to search John Carter. He is less ideological than the other characters, and seems to be acting more out of weakness, fear, and a lack of strong principles, rather than out of fascist ideology.

Mr. George Wilkinson the store owner is also a major source of the problems. His anti-rule of law spouting and attacks on the Jewish Mr. Nathan as the "wrong element" are very sinister. Coming from one of the town's biggest businessman, they suggest that business was a source of sinister right wing ideas.

Mr. Neary, who takes care of the Town Hall, is never shown as politically active or supporting any non-democratic ideas. He occasionally seems to have a New England accent. New England was widely seen in that era as the "typical American region", and as the source of American traditions. This town is perhaps the archetypal New England, and thus American, town.

Reginald Rose and Twelve Angry Men

An Almanac of Liberty was written by Reginald Rose. It makes a pair with Rose's most famous work, Twelve Angry Men. Both An Almanac of Liberty and Twelve Angry Men have themes of Freedom of Speech, both were episodes of Studio One, both are now available on the same DVD. They make an ideal double feature. The Studio One TV version of Twelve Angry Men was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, and not by Nickell. It is much better than the later feature film version directed by Sidney Lumet.

Reginald Rose and Thunder on Sycamore Street

There are also links between An Almanac of Liberty and another episode written by Reginald Rose, Thunder on Sycamore Street (1954), directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. In Thunder on Sycamore Street, a man faces opposition from townspeople, because he is an ex-convict. (In Rose's original version, the man was opposed because he was black, but the sponsor refused to accept this and forced charges.) In An Almanac of Liberty a man faces opposition purely because he voices an unpopular opinion. This is a more direct expression of Freedom of Speech. But both films are allegories about rights, and also tolerance of people who are different.

Thunder on Sycamore Street has an unusual construction, in which we view the same time period three times, only largely showing events befalling three different characters. Twice, the film goes back to its start time, so treat the story can start once again at this beginning point. There is nothing science fictional about this: it is just a complex story telling convention, showing the same time period thrice. It anticipates a bit the sf aspects of An Almanac of Liberty, in which time keeps getting stuck or going backwards, and some events do repeat "science fictionally", happening more than once.

Reginald Rose and Tragedy in a Temporary Town

There are links between An Almanac of Liberty and an episode of The Alcoa Hour written by Reginald Rose, Tragedy in a Temporary Town (1956), directed by Sidney Lumet. Both show ordinary people in a restricted area, trying to figure out by themselves a mysterious situation. In both, some of the men turn into bullies. In both, racist statements are made against a minority group: something the films deeply condemn. In both, some people try to take the law into their own hands. SPOILER. Tragedy in a Temporary Town ends with a man being beaten by a lynch mob; An Almanac of Liberty opens with such a beating.

Links to The Birds

An Almanac of Liberty anticipates The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963). Both have fantastic, unexplained events. In both, a group of townspeople gather together, and have a conversation in which they explore the possible causes of the events. In both, somewhat sinister townspeople try to attribute the cause to the arrival of a stranger in town. In both, that stranger is denounced, in person.

Studio One: Dino

Dino (1956) is a look at a juvenile delinquent, and his attempt to get re-integrated into society.

Dino's psychologist is played by Ralph Meeker. Meeker is a macho man grown-up, attempting to mentor and guide a troubled young male patient. This is also a description of shrink Richard Widmark and patient John Kerr in The Cobweb (Vincente Minnelli, 1955). The Cobweb was released in July 1955, and Dino was broadcast live on January 2, 1956, so there was plenty of time for an influence.

The Virginian: The Small Parade

The Small Parade (1963) is the only episode of The Virginian directed by Paul Nickell.

The Small Parade is full of off-trail material. This makes it seem "different" from most TV episodes. For a show that is upbeat, often comic and low key, it seems quite original and unusual.

The title The Small Parade seems like a burlesque on the silent film classic The Big Parade. The two films have nothing in common, aside from their titles.

Freedom of Speech

Like An Almanac of Liberty, The Small Parade reflects Nickell's commitment to Freedom of Speech. Perhaps half the show deals with a man who gets in trouble with a town, because he expresses ideas that are unpopular there: just as in An Almanac of Liberty. In both works, this leads to violent attacks on him by the townspeople. The Small Parade is "realistic" in tone, unlike the fantastic allegory of An Almanac of Liberty, and these attacks are put into a realistic Western storyline.

The Small Parade avoids self-righteousness. One can see how the townspeople would disagree and disapprove of the character's message. And the message is also something with which most 1963 viewers would disagree: vegetarianism. The early confrontation and speech is comic, with no obvious good guy. But The Small Parade then shows how unpopular speech can rapidly escalate into a nightmare. While Freedom of Speech is not mentioned explicitly in The Small Parade, it lies behind the plot's events. The Small Parade shows, on reflection, how important the principle of Free Speech is, and how it can save us from these problems.

Readings from Dickens

The heroine makes an unlikely living giving readings from Charles Dickens to small women's groups. She is one of several Nickell heroines who are single women barely supporting children through tiny, do-it-yourself businesses. These heroines are gutsy, but also a bit pathetic in their poverty.

Readings from classic literature had appeared earlier on The Virginian: George C. Scott gave a memorable recital of Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" (1897) at the end of The Brazen Bell (1962) (not directed by Nickell, but by Earl Bellamy). A number of earlier TV Westerns also had readings and quotations: it was part of the TV culture of the era. Richard Boone's hero Paladin on Have Gun - Will Travel was especially given to quotation. See also the Cheyenne episode Trial by Conscience (1959), with its Hamlet excerpts, directed by Lee Sholem.


Nickell's version of 1984 showed the hero as victim of diabolically sneaky betrayals by the government. Something both similar and different occurs in The Small Parade. Here the Virginian uses almost similar sneakiness in lying to and deceiving David Wayne. Wayne accuses the Virginian of betraying him, perhaps with some justification. But good guy the Virginian is doing this as part of a larger strategy, to help David Wayne. The Virginian indignantly says that he will show what kind of "betrayal" this is. And proceeds to help Wayne's situation. It is an interesting and fairly ingenious plot development.

Crowd Scenes - Shot from Elevated Angles

Paul Nickell sometimes shoots crowd scenes from above, from somewhat elevated angles. This gives a view of the whole crowd at once. The motions and behavior of each member of the crowd is visible. This occurs both at David Wayne's speech in the street near the start, and the wedding at the end. The complex group scenes recall the even more elaborate group staging in An Almanac of Liberty.


James Drury is in his usual red shirt. But Doug McClure is not in his usual blue, but rather in a golden brown vest and neutral shirt. Gary Clarke is also in a color related to these two. So all three cowboy heroes are in warm, bright colors, near the red-and-yellow part of the spectrum. This makes them seem to be part of a team. Their warm colors seem to glow, and make them stand out from their surroundings.