The Big Time offers a breezy, but knowledgeable, look at the early years of the television industry, taking the form of a fictitious light comedy centered on a fledgling network, Empire TV, trying to compete with the more established and better financed CBS and NBC networks in New York in 1948. It’s told from the point of view of Audrey Drummond (Christina Hendricks), newly arrived in town, a clean-scrubbed ingenue with her feet on the ground and her eyes on the stars. She quickly lands a job with Empire, a company headed up by "Doc" (Christopher Lloyd), an erratic scientific genius.
There’s some nice chemistry between Audrey and Walt Kaplan (Michael B. Silver), a floor manager in the TV studio with aspirations to be a director. The narrative drive propelling the film is an Empire production of the classic Thornton Wilder play, Our Town. Just about everything goes wrong in the preparation of this production up to and including its live telecast. Screenwriter Carol Flint cleverly uses the comic complications to point out some of the problems faced in TV production in those primitive times. The leading man, for example, comes from the world of radio where the script was always in hand; he’s unprepared for the task of memorizing lines for television.
Flint further introduces a running subplot about the difficulties of financing and the need to appease advertisers. She also brings in the absolute rules of the game: no profanity, no suicide, and no cleavage. The suicide rule presents an amusing dilemma for a production of Hedda Gabler. Other pointed observations are made about racial discrimination in the industry, the primitive technology of early television sets and reception, and the speed with which the public was embracing the medium, spurred on by the enormous success of Milton Berle’s Tuesday night variety show. Most of the time Flint manages to slip her bits of history naturally into the flow of the story, only occasionally falling into the trap of didacticism.
Molly Ringwald (Pretty in Pink) plays Doc’s not-so-dumb-blond wife and brings it off with panache. But though she and Lloyd as the bigger names get star billing, this is primarily an ensemble effort and it’s Christina Hendricks whose charming handling of an old stock role transcends its limitations and anchors the story. Notable also is Sharif Atkins as Joe Royal, who heads up a black combo that gets a break in a racist industry and provides some welcome musical interludes in the film. Their music ranges from jump swing to more hard core jazz, the latter when they’re playing for their own satisfaction at a smoky club.
The Big Time is not only telling a 1940s story, it also visibly aspires to the period’s film style. It doesn’t attain the character development of, say, Ring Lardner, Jr.’s 1942 comedy Woman of the Year, or the wit of, for example, Ben Hecht’s 1940 His Girl Friday, but it doesn’t insult the intelligence, either, and it provides lighthearted entertainment a cut above what today’s television industry generally serves up as made-for-TV movies.