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Made possible by the John H. Mitchell Television Programming Endowment

Small Screen/Big Screen: Quiz Show and Twenty-One

Actor Ralph Fiennes as a game show contestant.
June 1, 2024 - 7:30 pm

Admission is free. No advance reservations. Your seat will be assigned to you when you pick up your ticket at the box office. Seats are assigned on a first come, first served basis. The box office opens one hour before the event.

Director Robert Redford's meticulous period drama Quiz Show (1994) artfully examines the game show scandals of the 1950s as a symbolic, collective loss of innocence delivered to the American public by the emerging medium of television. Working from Paul Attanasio's multi-layered script (based on a book by congressional lawyer Robert Goodwin, who investigated the scandals) Redford plunges beyond surface motivations of monetary greed to expose darker shadows that lurked behind the facade of idealism and promise in post-World War II America.

While numerous TV game shows were implicated in covertly providing participants with answers to questions, the extremely popular Twenty-One became central in the scandal, as did telegenic contestant Charles Van Doren (played by Ralph Fiennes) and the opponent he defeated, Herbert Stempel (played by John Turturro). Their tense, consequential match on Twenty-One forms the cataclysmic core of Redford's film, replicated in exacting detail, as evidenced in viewing the actual broadcast as it aired, which survives on a kinescope recording from 1956. In that historical filmed record, as in Redford's feature, the harsh stage lights of a game show set reveal hidden pressures and societal prejudices even more influential and destructive than the almighty dollar.  

Join us for this second Small Screen/Big Screen presentation highlighting critically acclaimed motion pictures that examine pivotal moments in television history and the indelible original broadcasts that inspired the features. The evening will include a screening of the award-winning film Quiz Show on 35mm, followed by an original kinescope of the fateful Van Doren-Stempel contest on Twenty-One — complete with original commercials.

Program notes by Mark Quigley, John H. Mitchell Television Curator.

Special thanks to our community partner: Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

Quiz Show

U.S., 1994

Named Best Film by the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, Robert Redford’s impeccable period piece examines the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. Rob Morrow (Northern Exposure) co-stars as Robert Goodwin, a congressional lawyer investigating the possibility that TV’s enormously popular quiz shows may be rigged. At the center of the scrutiny are Herb Stempel (John Turturro) and Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), polar opposites whose lives are both inextricably altered by their participation on the high money-stakes game show, Twenty-One

35mm, b&w, 133 min.  Director: Robert Redford. Screenwriter: Paul Attanasio. With: Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow, John Turturro, Paul Scofield. Print courtesy of the Academy Film Archive.


U.S., 12/5/1956

With original commercials!

In this infamous broadcast that figured centrally in the quiz scandals of the 1950s, everyman Herb Stempel, the reigning champion of Twenty-One, is paired against telegenic Ivy League scholar Charles Van Doren. Within the high-stakes match, both contestants ratchet up the theatrics of the gameplay, despite being made pre-aware of the answers and outcome by show producers. A real-life drama of epic proportions, played out on a game show set. 

DCP, b&w, 30 min. NBC. Production: Jack Barry-Dan Enright Productions. Host: Jack Barry. Contestants: Herb Stempel, Charles Van Doren. Special thanks to Jeff Joseph.

Related screening: Small Screen/Big Screen: Good Night, and Good Luck and See It Now