Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Directed by Frank Wisbar

As even the author acknowledges, the audience for a book about writer-director Frank Wisbar is apt to be limited. His is not a household name, even among film buffs. Yet those who love classic horror often have a soft spot for his two best-known American films: Strangler of the Swamp and Devil Bat's Daughter, both released in 1946.

Despite what those titles might suggest, Wisbar was never just a schlockmeister merrily scraping the bottom of the barrel on Poverty Row. As Henry Nicolella shows in Frank Wisbar: The Director of 'Ferryman Maria,' from Germany to America and Back (McFarland), Wisbar traveled a long and circuitous route from his native Germany to Hollywood. Often thwarted in making films as he wished to do amid the political turmoil of Nazi Germany, Wisbar faced completely different challenges when he emigrated to America during World War II. After adapting his far more artistically ambitious German film Ferryman Maria into a PRC potboiler (albeit one that continues to have a cult following), Wisbar went on to a successful career in early television drama. Nicolella's coverage of Wisbar's work on the anthology series Fireside Theatre offers an engaging look into television's formative years.

I can readily imagine that this was an extremely difficult book to research, and I'm afraid it's unlikely to make the author wealthy. But discerning readers will appreciate the elusive bits of history he uncovers, as well as a writing style that hits the sweet spot of intelligent and informed commentary that's never dry or pretentious. Nicolella has given us a significant slice of film history that merits the attention of scholars and film lovers.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Go, Betty!

Here's wishing a very happy 96th birthday to the one and only Betty White, born January 17, 1922.

Hard to believe it's been more than a decade since I had the privilege of interviewing her for my first book, The Women Who Made Television Funny: Ten Stars of 1950s Sitcoms. Long may she flourish!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Sitcom Interruptus

Van Dyke and Lange, with TV daughter Angela Powell.
Some forty-odd years ago, my sister and I tried hard to convince my mother that we were big fans of The New Dick Van Dyke Show. What we liked best about it, in truth, was that it aired on Monday nights after Here's Lucy, which we were allowed to watch before being hustled off to bed. My mother, of course, never fell for that routine, designed to let us stay up a bit longer.

Not available on DVD, and little-seen in syndication, Van Dyke's second TV sitcom, which aired on CBS from 1971 to 1974, never came close to matching the popularity or the critical acclaim of his first. But the writers and producers and writers did try to bring a 1970s topicality to the show, with plots revolving around topics like marijuana and interracial dating. They went one step too far for CBS' comfort with the third-season episode Lt. Preston of the 4th Cavalry, which network executives refused to air as shot.

Norman Lear's sitcoms had radically changed sitcom standards in the early 1970s, so Van Dyke's producer Carl Reiner was shocked that censors targeted this episode. It does have a premise you won't see on I Love Lucy, or My Three Sons. The episode finds Van Dyke and his TV wife (in this series, Hope Lange) coming to the slightly horrified realization that their young daughter unwittingly barged in on her parents while they were making love. Even though the script handled the premise in good taste, CBS censors felt that the episode was not in keeping with the star's family-friendly image. Reiner was so angered by this decision that he promptly quit the show, and shortly afterwards Dick Van Dyke refused to continue the series for a fourth year.

Like so many other TV obscurities, that episode has now been posted to YouTube, along with several others. Having heard about the brouhaha for some years, I was interested to see the show for myself. Take a look, and let me know what you think. Did CBS make the right call, or did executives overreact?