Sunday, June 29, 2014

Professor Joan

Joan Davis the intellectual? Who'd have thought it? Certainly not fans of her 1940s radio shows, nor most of her movies at Fox. But Joan showed her versatility in the 1946 Universal comedy She Wrote the Book. In early scenes, she plays shy mathematics professor Jane Featherstone, faculty member of a small college. But throw in a train trip, and an unexpected knock on the head, and soon Jane is mistaken for Lulu Winters, author of the scandalous bestseller Always Lulu. What happens after that makes for one of Joan's best comedy films, one that has yet to have a proper DVD release.

Off-screen, of course, Joan was an extremely intelligent woman who made the most of her hard-earned talent as a comedienne, and successfully operated her own corporation, Joan Davis Enterprises. Want to know more about that? Well, here's my suggestion. Amazing what you can find in books these days, isn't it?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

It Happens Every June

On the cover of TV Guide.
Happy birthday to actress June Lockhart, who has not one, not two, but three fondly remembered series roles in classic TV. Born June 25, 1925, the daughter of actors Gene and Kathleen Lockhart, June worked successfully in films, theater, and early TV, coming to prominence in 1958 as mom Ruth Martin on Lassie. After six years in that role, she was signed to co-star in CBS' Lost in Space. Still a cult favorite, LIS (as fans call it) didn't always use June to the fullest extent, as other characters, notably Dr. Smith, Will Robinson, and the Robot came to the fore from Season 2 onward. Nonetheless, the show kept her employed for three years. In 1968, she joined the cast of Petticoat Junction, with her character, Dr. Janet Craig, filling some of the void left by the untimely death of series star Bea Benaderet. Along the way, she racked up guest appearances in many other classic TV favorites -- Bewitched, Adam-12, Perry Mason, and Family Affair, just to name a few. 

Interviewed by author Tom Weaver in the 1990s, Lockhart said of her long career, "I never had a desire to be famous, I never had that driving force -- gotta act! gotta get out there! It has just unfolded so naturally in my life." Classic TV fans wouldn't have it any other way.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Book Review: Being "Famous Enough" Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be

Call it a cautionary tale. You might think that being Diane McBain in 1960s Hollywood would be great fun. The beautiful blonde leading lady of TV's Surfside Six, where she kept company with three handsome co-stars, McBain also won roles in high-profile movies like Ice Palace and Parrish, and to many observers seemed well on her way to major stardom.

But the newly released Famous Enough: A Hollywood Memoir, by McBain and Michael Gregg Michaud (BearManor Media, $29.95) paints a different picture of life as a starlet, with a starting pay of $250 a week. Off the set, she was involved with men who often treated her poorly, and was insecure about her talent and the progress of her career. Soon, her chance at top stardom having passed her by, she was reduced to roles in AIP drive-in quickies like The Mini-Skirt Mob. The years ahead would bring unemployment, a troubled marriage, and in the 1980s a vicious sexual assault that left her physically and mentally battered.

The raw material of McBain's life is dramatic, and she wisely enlisted Michaud, author of an excellent biography of Sal Mineo, to capture it in a readable, well-organized form. Though many of her stories are sad -- her fans may find it painful to read the remarkably candid account of her rape -- the book is also wise, and at times quite funny. Writing about Parrish, in which actress Claudette Colbert watched the inexperienced McBain fumble a complicated scene, she says, "Throughout this painful ordeal, Miss Colbert didn't say a word, but if looks could kill, I would have been buried in a tobacco field outside Hartford, Connecticut." Mincing no words, McBain bluntly describes one of her co-stars as "insufferable," and says of working with a mainly female cast (including Joan Crawford) in The Caretakers, "At times, the nonsense degenerated into ugly bitch fights. I half expected to find clumps of hair on the floor of the set." Also interesting are her accounts of entertaining troops in Vietnam, her work as an advocate for rape survivors, and a stint in the world of daytime TV.

As the above suggests, Diane McBain has one hell of a story to tell. With the help of co-author Michaud, she does it justice, in a book that merits a wide audience.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Happy Birthday, Margie!

In the heyday of classic TV, the month of June was usually marked by the arrival of summer replacement shows. Many would run a few weeks between June and August, never to be seen again. But others developed into popular hits that found a home on the regular year-round schedule.

One of my favorite summer replacement shows was My Little Margie, starring Gale Storm and Charles Farrell, which premiered (get ready!) 62 years ago today, on June 16, 1952. Critical response to the show was mixed, not helped by the fact that it was CBS' summer replacement for I Love Lucy. Lucy's first, groundbreaking season, when it became TV's top-rated show, set the bar high for whatever took its place, even temporarily. But if critics weren't enamored, viewers were. As Miss Storm herself would later say of her show, "Nobody likes it but the people." Given its popularity, the show had no difficulty lining up a sponsor for fall; it ultimately ran for three years, and produced 126 episodes. Once My Little Margie had run its course, Gale Storm returned to TV in 1956 for The Gale Storm Show: Oh, Susanna!, which lasted from 1956 to 1960.

Some years ago, when I was writing The Women Who Made Television Funny: Ten Stars from 1950s Sitcoms, I had the privilege of doing two telephone interviews with Miss Storm. She was lively, funny, and generous with her time. It was easy to see how she had charmed movie, television, and theater audiences over the course of her long career -- as she still does today, whenever we have the chance to enjoy her work.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Throwback Thursday: What I'd Be Watching

On Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere, people often celebrate "Throwback Thursday," in which they post pictures, memories, or comments that take a nostalgic look backward. When it comes to television, I often wish I could throw back some of the inane reality shows of today, in favor of some of my favorite Thursday night classics. 

Marx and George Fenneman.
Thursdays were always a good night for comedy -- if you worked a 9 to 5 job, you were probably coming into the homestretch of a long week, and could use a good laugh. For much of the 1950s, NBC "and your DeSoto-Plymouth dealers" had you covered with Groucho Marx's quiz show You Bet Your Life. Although the contestants did compete for prize money, the real appeal here was Groucho's trademark wit, and his wry exchanges with the quirky people who turned up each week. Who else would interview a tree surgeon and ask, "Tell me, have you ever fallen out of a patient?"

In the 1960s, Screen Gems (later to be known as Columbia Pictures Television) was one of the world's most successful sitcom factories, and gave birth to two Thursday-night favorites. Hazel, seen on NBC, was a warm, gentle show about the suburban Baxter family, whose lives were completely dominated by their maid. The lead character, who always knew what was best for everyone, could have been hard to take if she hadn't been played by the Oscar, Tony, and Emmy-winning Shirley Booth, who made her endearing even when she was in the midst of driving the Baxters nuts.

And what Baby Boomer kid didn't look forward to Thursday nights to see Samantha Stephens twitch up a good time on ABC's Bewitched? I don't know about you, but the only thing better than having Hazel clean up my messy house would be developing my own magic powers, like the beautiful witch of Morning Glory Circle. I've been hoping for those powers for years, and I haven't given up yet.

What were your Thursday night classic TV favorites?

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Worth a Look: Stanwyck's "Witness to Murder"

If you ask old movie buffs for a list of Barbara Stanwyck's ten best films, 1954's Witness to Murder isn't likely to make the cut, and I won't argue that it should. But this lesser- known suspense film offers plenty of diversion for anyone willing to give it a look.

With a running time of only 82 minutes, there's little time to waste in telling a story. Witness to Murder is up and running from the get-go, as Los Angeles dress designer Cheryl Draper (Stanwyck) looks out her window one night to see her neighbor across the way, Alfred Richter (George Sanders), throttling a woman to death. With only moments to spare, Richter drags the body to a vacant apartment nearby, changes quickly into nightclothes, and acts convincingly bewildered when the police show up to check out Miss Draper's story. Police Lieutenant Larry Mathews (Gary Merrill) tries to soothe Miss Draper, convinced she must have woken abruptly from a bad dream and mistaken it for reality, but she knows what she saw. When she doesn't seem inclined to let the mystery drop, the seemingly suave and cultured Richter decides to take no chances on putting this inconvenient witness to his crime out of commission.

Arrestingly photographed by Oscar-winning cinematographer John Alton, Witness to Murder benefits from strong performances in its lead roles, and a brisk pace that keeps you watching. Fans of All About Eve will enjoy seeing Sanders and Merrill together again, and there are also some smart performances in the supporting cast. When Cheryl Draper's crusade against her nefarious neighbor earns her a brief stay in the psych ward, her fellow patients are memorably etched by the fine character actresses Adeline De Walt Reynolds, Claire Carleton, and -- five years before Imitation of Life -- Juanita Moore, whose lines consist almost entirely of the song she can't stop singing. Since all things around here lately lead to Joan Davis, I also noticed Dick Elliott, who turned up often on I Married Joan, as an apartment manager who unwittingly gives Stanwyck's character a vital clue to the mysterious murder.

When your viewing pleasures consist mostly of the films and television shows of an earlier era, there's always a concern that the well will run dry, that you will have seen "everything good." It's a treat to come across a movie like this one, that proves there are still new discoveries to be made.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Joan Davis Attends a TVParty!

As a longtime reader of Billy Ingram's fun, informative TVParty! site, I'm delighted by today's featured post, a review of my Joan Davis book. Click here to see what he has to say. Unbelievably, it's now been more than 50 years since Joan's trailblazing career was cut short by her untimely death at the age of 48. Thanks, Billy, for helping make sure her life and work are remembered.