Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Outtakes #3: Eve Arden

If you could add up the combined hours these six people spent in front of a TV camera, you'd have...well, a whole lotta TV to watch. In this 1978 photo, another I acquired for my collection while doing a book on Eve Arden, she's at far right. Joining her are (l-r) her Our Miss Brooks featured player Richard Crenna, along with Bonnie Franklin (One Day at a Time), Jim Nabors (Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.), Linda Lavin (Alice), and Bert Convy (Tattletales). The occasion was a 50th anniversary special for the Eye Network, called CBS: On the Air.

Another 35 years have slipped by since then (yikes!), and with the recent passing of Bonnie Franklin, only Nabors and Lavin are still with us. The former singing waitress at Mel's Diner starred in an off-Broadway show in 2012, while the scourge of Sergeant Carter's existence made headlines earlier this year with his marriage to longtime partner Stan Canwallader. There's a surprising amount of musical chops among this sextet, so their song-and-dance number probably sounded pretty good. Would you believe me if I told you I was too young to stay up and watch this show in 1978? Nah, didn't think so.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

When TV Was Simpler

If you're interested enough to read this blog, maybe you'll understand why I enjoy acquiring a vintage TV Guide occasionally on eBay. It's fun to revisit those simpler days when there were only three or four TV channels to choose from in your city, they generally shut down broadcasting shortly after midnight, and they more than likely did a significant amount of local programming. I also enjoy seeing the original listings and ads for shows I've never seen, and likely never will.

Here are a few of the shows being offered Atlanta viewers in the January 21, 1961 edition. Dr. Hudson's Secret Journal, by then in daily reruns, was a syndicated medical drama produced from 1955 to 1957, while Westinghouse Playhouse, starring Nanette Fabray, was a short-lived NBC sitcom casting the star as a Broadway performer newly married to a widower (Wendell Corey). It would last only 13 weeks. Instead of "Don't Miss Them," maybe the slogan should have been, "Hurry Up and Watch!"

But here's the one that really caught my eye. It's a local kids' show that originated daily from a station in Chattanooga. "Fun & laughter for all"? I can believe that. "Cartoons and comedy films"? Makes sense. But "many nationally famous stars appearing in person"? Really? I wasn't around to see the show, so I can't swear to anything. If any of Alex and Elmer's little pals are reading this, 52 years later, drop us a note care of this blog and let us know exactly what (or who) we missed.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Book Review: The Films of Agnes Moorehead

Having enjoyed Axel Nissen’s two previous books about character actresses of Golden Age Hollywood, I was eager to read his newest effort, The Films of Agnes Moorehead (Scarecrow, $75). Happily, it's a book worthy of both the author and his much-admired subject. Though he provides the basics one expects in a "Films of" book (credits, synopsis, reviews, etc.), his sixty-three mini-essays are as varied as the films themselves, reflecting his wide-reaching appreciation for classic cinema and its players. Several entries are enriched by interviews with Moorehead colleagues like Olivia de Havilland, Dean Jones, and Michael Pate, and the use of her personal papers held at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Each film is represented with a cleanly reproduced production still.

Unlike too many film writers besotted with their subjects, Nissen doesn’t try to convince us that every performance Moorehead gave was flawless. (Of her role as "the Leona Helmsley of retail" in Who’s Minding the Store? he writes, “Though it is almost impossible to imagine an actor being over the top in a Jerry Lewis film, Moorehead comes close.”) But he clearly appreciates the best of her work, and writes about it in a style that’s approachable, informed, and often very funny. "Her every scene as Emily is a joy to behold," he says of Since You Went Away, "as she brandishes her steel-edged, rapier tongue as a weapon to inflict wounds large and small but always under the flimsy cover of the best intentions..." Though Citizen Kane and All That Heaven Allows receive more attention than, say, Dear Dead Delilah, the lesser films are not neglected – if you want to know more about Agnes’ 1972 ax murder saga, Nissen delivers; he even interviewed a crew member for behind-the-scenes information.  

The book’s price tag, which may understandably be a barrier for some readers, reflects its issuance from an academic publisher that primarily serves libraries. Unfortunately, mainstream publishers seem to have little interest these days in publishing much more than the latest helping of scandal about Marilyn Monroe, or (Lord help us all) Shirley Jones’ TMI memoir (Google it if you really gotta know). But if you’re a Moorehead fan, this is well worth your time, and pairs nicely with Charles Tranberg’s biography of her.

NOTE: I was provided a review copy in exchange for an honest and fair review.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Here Comes Hazel!

Ted Key's Hazel likes her TV counterpart.
More than fifty years later, it's hard to picture anyone but Shirley Booth (1898-1992) playing the starring role in television's Hazel. Here, in a vintage magazine ad taken out by the show's sponsor to promote its NBC debut in 1961, you can see how Shirley shaped up to Ted Key's cartoon character familiar to readers of the Saturday Evening Post. When Screen Gems acquired the TV rights to the character, executives considered Thelma Ritter and Agnes Moorehead, but thought Miss Booth was the ideal choice. Other studios bidding for the rights had wanted to cast The Honeymooners' Audrey Meadows, or Ann B. Davis (Schultzy on The Bob Cummings Show) as Hazel.

Already an Oscar and Tony winner, Miss Booth was considered by some an unlikely candidate to want a sitcom job, and indeed she'd told her agent she wasn't available for television series work. But she liked the pilot script, and thought the character was one she'd enjoy playing. Soon enough the Ford Motor Company signed on to sponsor her new series, describing her in ads like this one as "the most improbable maid you've ever seen." After her first season in the role, Miss Booth found herself not only the star of a hit series, but also the possessor of an Emmy for Best Actress to add to her award shelf.

For the complete story of Miss Booth's illustrious career onstage, in radio and film, and as TV's most beloved maid, check out my book Shirley Booth: A Biography and Career Record, which also features a detailed episode guide to Hazel.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Spring Byington: The Original Golden Girl

Spring Byington
Happy birthday to Spring Byington, born October 17, 1886 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Although she had a long and successful career as a movie character actress, she's best known to TV buffs for her starring role in Desilu's popular sitcom December Bride.

The show, which aired from 1954 to 1959 on CBS-TV, after first being heard on radio, cast Miss Byington as Lily Ruskin, a sixtyish widow living with her daughter and son-in-law. The antithesis of a typical mother-in-law joke, Lily was a charming, fun-loving woman who showed audiences there were plenty of good times still to be had later in life, and even the chance for romance (hence the title). Originally seen on Monday nights after I Love Lucy, December Bride quickly became a hit with viewers, and even led to a spinoff show for featured player Harry Morgan, Pete and Gladys.

After Bride concluded its network run, Miss Byington spent two years playing a co-starring role in the Western series Laramie, and did TV guest appearances in everything from I Dream of Jeannie to Batman (remember J. Pauline Spaghetti?) before her death in 1971. Of her late-in-life fame as a sitcom star, she told syndicated columnist Margaret McManus, "We television people are the most privileged people in the world. We're doing work we love, for very rewarding pay. And wherever we go, we have instant recognition ... I enjoy this so much, such a wonderful expression of cordiality and interest, from everybody, wherever I am."

To learn more about Spring Byington, and her classic series, check out my book The Women Who Made Television Funny, as well as my friend (no relation) Fredrick Tucker's book Verna Felton, an excellent biography of the actress who played Lily's pal Hilda.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Vivian Vance: "It's More An Expression of Me"

As most Lucy fans know, Vivian Vance was ambivalent about the prospect of playing opposite Lucille Ball in a second weekly series, when she was approached about making a comeback in The Lucy Show (CBS, 1962-68). Despite a generous salary, flattering wardrobe, co-star billing and the promise that her character would not be named Ethel, she was hesitant about taking the role, and in fact would remain a series regular for only three seasons. But when interviewed by syndicated columnist Cynthia Lowry in the fall of 1962, only a few months after joining the cast, Vivian was sounding upbeat about her new assignment. Here are some excerpts from that rarely-republished interview:

Opening titles for season 1 of The Lucy Show.
"I like being a woman with a son," Vivian said. "I think it's more an expression of me. Before we started the new show, I kept talking with the writers, begging them to keep the part feminine -- I didn't mean that I didn't want to be funny, but I wanted to get away from those tough, hard-bitten, masculine-sounding jokes." After shooting several episodes of The Lucy Show, Vivian pronounced herself pleased with the results. "I've read a lot of scripts and I think I can tell good comedy when I see it. I think that one of the things that makes our show good is that it is warm, and that basically we like each other ... Lucille has such a great talent -- she is a great clown.

 "Of course, when I Love Lucy finished, we never dreamed we'd be back doing this. But now, here we are -- and I couldn't be happier."

Friday, October 11, 2013

You Loved the Movie...

If there's anything network TV programmers can't seem to resist, it's a sitcom based on a hit movie (which in turn was often adapted from a book, or a Broadway play). Although the idea of buying a tried-and-true concept, and a pre-sold title, sounds good in theory, in practice the track record of such shows is dubious at best. With rare exceptions, the actors who starred in the movie don't reprise their roles in the series, and often the basic concept that made a good movie doesn't translate well to weekly half-hour episodes. 
Paper Moon -- the movie (top), with Tatum and Ryan O'Neal, and (below) the sitcom, with Jodie Foster and Christopher Connelly.
Consequently, despite the occasional success story (M*A*S*H, or Alice -- the latter based on the film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), the video graveyard is littered with the corpses of movie adaptations that failed to meet expectations. How many of these do you remember? 

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (ABC, 1973)
Down and Out in Beverly Hills (Fox, 1987)
Father of the Bride (CBS, 1961-62)
Freebie and the Bean (CBS, 1980-81)
Margie (ABC, 1961-62)
Mister Roberts (NBC, 1965-66)
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (ABC, 1969-70)
No Time for Sergeants (ABC, 1964-65)
Nothing in Common (NBC, 1987)
Paper Moon (ABC, 1974)
Popi (CBS, 1976)
Uncle Buck (CBS, 1990-91)
The Wackiest Ship in the Army (NBC, 1965-66)
Working Girl (NBC, 1990)

Nonetheless, it's a safe bet that, as you read this, someone in Hollywood is busy negotiating for the TV rights to a hit movie. And, certainly, turnabout is fair play -- witness the movie versions of The Beverly Hillbillies, Bewitched, or Car 54, Where Are You? Hey, movie execs, just leave I Love Lucy alone, please? Seriously.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Still Dead -- And Loving It! -- After 60 Years

Topper (Leo G. Carroll) sees dead people.
Happy 60th anniversary to one of TV's first, and best-loved, fantasy sitcoms, Topper, which premiered Friday, October 9, 1953, on CBS. Husband-and-wife stars Anne Jeffreys (1923-  ) and Robert Sterling (1917-2006) were mischievous ghosts Marion and George Kerby -- described by the announcer as "the ghostess with the mostest" and "that most sporting spirit," respectively.* Leo G. Carroll (1892-1972) played their reluctant host, mild-mannered banker Cosmo Topper, and one of my favorite character actresses, Lee Patrick (1901-1982) was featured as his befuddled wife Henrietta. Also on hand was the Kerbys' late dog Neil, a Saint Bernard who could slurp down a martini with the best of them.

Author Thorne Smith (1892-1934) created fun-loving spooks George and Marion for a novel published in 1926; he followed that with a sequel, Topper Takes a Trip, in 1932. After being adapted for the movies and even radio (ghosts on radio?!), Topper enjoyed a two-year run on CBS, another full season of reruns on ABC, and a long afterlife (so to speak) in syndication. If you've never seen the show, head to YouTube for a sample episode, complete with vintage commercials for the sponsor's cigarettes. You can learn more about author Thorne Smith here, or check out the chapter on Anne Jeffreys in my book The Women Who Made Television Funny.

So pour yourself a drink in honor of a TV classic's anniversary -- and don't forget to save some for Neil.

*Or is that "sportive" spirit, or "sporty" spirit? Sources differ. Sounds like "sporting" to me. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Outtakes #2: Eve Arden

Sometimes it seems as if Eve Arden played the smart, funny, loyal best pal of every Golden Age movie actress. Aside from her Oscar-nominated turn as Ida Corwin in Mildred Pierce, supporting Joan Crawford, Eve also befriended Barbara Stanwyck (My Reputation), Doris Day (Tea for Two), and Jane Wyman (The Lady Takes a Sailor), to name a few. "When they throw Shirley Temple at me," she once joked, "I'm going to quit."

In the photo above, though (another outtake from my book on Eve), she's doing the honors for a leading lady you might not so easily recognize. Can you name the lovely lady at left in this 1930s still? Post the answer -- or your best guess -- in the comments below. I'll solve the mystery on Monday, if no one beats me to it. Happy old movie watching!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Four Degrees of Gale Storm

You know the concept -- Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Supposedly, any entertainer can be connected within six links to the dancin' star of Footloose.
All well and good for Mr. Bacon's contemporaries, but what about someone at the height of her TV fame right around the time he was born? I decided to test the theory with none other than Gale Storm (1922-2009), the beloved star of the Golden Age sitcoms My Little Margie (1952-55) and The Gale Storm Show: Oh Susanna! (1956-60) -- and one of the subjects of my first book, The Women Who Made Television Funny.

Here's what I came up with:

     1. Gale Storm's second TV sitcom featured Roy Roberts as her boss, Captain Huxley.

     2. Roy Roberts went on to play bank president Mr. Cheever on The Lucy Show, which starred Lucille Ball.

     3. Lucille Ball made the 1968 hit movie Yours, Mine, and Ours, which featured Tim Matheson as her stepson, Mike. (Bonus point: Matheson also made a guest appearance on Here's Lucy.)

     4. Tim Matheson later starred in the wildly popular comedy National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), which gave young Kevin Bacon his film debut, as hapless fraternity pledge Chip Diller.
"Thank you, sir, may I have another?"

See, that wasn't too difficult. Anyone want to try Gracie Allen?