Wickes

Fifteen years ago, when I worked at the USC Warner Bros. Archives and Steve Taravella was researching a book on the actress Mary Wickes there, Steve asked me what I’d most want to know about Wickes.  Her sexuality, was my immediate reply, since Wickes’s character type was the conspicuously man-hungry or asexual spinster who tends now to be seen as a coded lesbian.  After I offered that pretty obvious answer, Steve’s face sort of fell.  I could hear him thinking: Is that all people are going to care about?

Taravella’s book, which came out last fall, serves as a brilliant rebuke to my reductive answer.  It’s one of the most worthwhile works of entertainment scholarship I read last year.  While there are biographies of almost every important film and TV star, and even a few books that lovingly chronicle the lives of character actors (like, say, Peter Lorre or Warren Oates), who briefly or nearly became stars, Taravella’s may be the first serious account of the life of an actor whose name never appeared above the title.  The secret to its excellence is that Taravella approaches Mary Wickes with the same respect and seriousness as one would a Bette Davis or a Barbara Stanwyck.  Although Wickes in her career racked up only a fraction of the screen time that Davis and Stanwyck enjoyed, nothing about Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before (UP of Mississippi, 2013) suggests that its subject is any less deserving of contemplation.  In Taravella’s hands, Wickes becomes a stand-in for the whole bit player stratum.  His book represents a single, exemplary attempt to document the middle class, sort-of-famous, sort-of-not life led by all those familiar working actors of the studio era.  Largely neglected by the press in their own day, they are beloved ciphers to modern movie fans.

So, anyhow: Was Mary Wickes a lesbian?  No, although she may have had her first and only sexual encounter with a gay man.  Meticulously but tastefully, Taravella probes this and every other aspect of Wickes’s personal life to create a portrait of Wickes so detailed that, by the end of the book, you can accurately guess how she responded to a given situation before Taravella offers up the answer.  The book is full of details you would think couldn’t possibly have been recorded, and yet Taravella has found them and placed them in a context that usually manages not to seem like an invasion of privacy.  Wickes was something of a pack rat, and Taravella was fortunate in that she bequeathed her estate to her clergyman, who saved everything and only declared a few personal items off limits.  It would be easy to get bogged down in such minutiae, but Taravella navigates these treacherous shoals with confidence, always making a solid case for any pedantry in which he indulges.  Even Wickes’s grocery receipts offer up relevant clues as to her ways of thinking and living.  Taravella’s other stroke of luck was his timing.  Although he began shortly after Wickes’s death in 1995, many of her contemporaries were still living, and Taravella (who traveled to Wickes’s hometown of St. Louis) interviewed many of these cousins, schoolmates, and early Broadway acquaintances in the last years of their lives.

The portrait that emerges of Wickes, who led a life not unlike those of many of her characters, is far from flattering.  She lived with her mother until she was 55, and then alone in a Los Angeles high-rise for the last thirty years of her life.  Many of her friends were gay men, although Wickes seems not to have realized that in many cases, and thought of some of them as (asexual) romantic partners.  She also harbored delusions about her social and professional prominence.  Wickes, for instance, thought of herself as a serious contender for the title role in Disney’s big-budget film of Mary Poppins, simply because she had played the part on television (in a live Studio One broadcast, many years earlier); she remained bitter about that rejection, and many other perceived slights, for the rest of her life.  All of that could be taken as tragic – the typecast actor, yearning to break free – except that Wickes was a huge pain in the ass, who took her resentments out on colleagues and acquaintances.  She was such a prude that the producers of the sitcom Doc fired her after Wickes demanded the right to change any dialogue she found offensive.  Many biographers would take sides with such a quarrelsome figure, either advocating stridently for her as a friend would, or getting fed up with her (as the reader likely will).  Taravella presents Wickes’s life in unsparing detail, and yet never wavers from a respectful, even-handed tone.  His is an enormously humane depiction of a rather sad person.

MTM

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic (Simon & Schuster, 2013) is a solid, well-written overview of its subject, even if its total word count might not be much more than double that of the cumbersome title.  Some of my readers and colleagues picked apart its omissions on Twitter, and they’re probably right.  But as I’ve never seen any of the Mary Tyler Moore spin-offs, and haven’t revisited the mother ship since it was rerunning on Nick at Nite, I found it to be a valuable primer.

Armstrong, whose previous book was Sexy Feminism: A Girl’s Guide to Love, Success, and Style, places a particular emphasis on the women who made the show – Moore herself, as well as Cloris Leachman and Valerie Harper (whose spinoff, Rhoda, gets almost as much attention as Mary), writers and story editors like Treva Silverman, Marilyn Suzanne Miller, and Pat Nardo, costumer Leslie Hall, and director Joan Darling.  Armstrong also digresses to place Mary Tyler Moore in the context of other feminist, or at least female-centric, sitcoms that sprung up in its wake, like Maude and Fay (a short-lived show made infamous by Lee Grant’s Tonight Show tirade against the programmers who cancelled it).  That’s probably too narrow an approach – Darling, after all, directed only one episode, even if it was “Chuckles Bites the Dust” – but Armstrong never goes too far in terms of giving the women a disproportionate amount of credit.  Plus, the biographical sketches of Silverman and some of the other women, which Armstrong threads through the book as a structuring device, are fascinating; implicitly, at least, Armstrong makes the case that their stories may indeed be more relevant than those of the men who had more creative input.  

The problem with Armstrong’s book is a nice problem for a book to have, which is that it’s trying to be three books (at least) all at once: an exhaustive production history of Mary Tyler Moore; an industrial account of the rise and fall of Moore’s company, MTM Productions, the output of which (both comedic and dramatic) increasingly seems less dated than almost everything else on the air during its heyday, especially the rival sitcom factory run by Norman Lear; and an analysis of the extent to which feminism penetrated mainstream television (or didn’t) during the ERA era.  Someone get cracking on all of those, please.

Kellerman

Sally Kellerman’s Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life (Weinstein Books, 2013) is a better-than-average movie star memoir, more candid than many but perhaps not terribly illuminating in its attempts at introspection from an actress who, at times, seems as ditzy as the characters she often played.  (The book climaxes on a bummer, when Kellerman credits cultish group therapy sessions guided by Milton Wexler – the psychoanalyst who insinuated himself creatively into many of Blake Edwards’s narcissistic late-career comedies – for sorting out many of her emotional problems.)  In any case, it will be of special interest to readers of this blog for the fond and unexpected attention that Kellerman lavishes on her early television career.  Kellerman offers useful takes on some expected figures, like Joseph Stefano (who played Svengali with her on The Outer Limits, her big break), Robert Altman, and writer David Rayfiel, with whom Kellerman had a serious romance.  But Kellerman also describes in detail the acting classes of Jeff Corey, where she got much of her early training and palled around with future stars like Jack Nicholson, as well as Schwab’s and all the other struggling actors’ hangouts in Hollywood.

(I’ve read many accounts of the New York equivalent of these formative places, but few from the West Coast.)

Television actors Robert Sampson and Luana Anders are major characters in the early chapters, as is Tom Pittman, a promising leading man who did a ton of TV guest shots in the year or two before his body was found at the bottom of a Hollywood canyon in 1958.  Kellerman’s account of Pittman’s death, and of her role and that of small-part actor Robert Bice (who played square-jawed cops in tons of TV episodes prior to his own early demise) in its aftermath, are so startling that I’m surprised a major publication hasn’t taken up the subject for further investigation.

Montgomery

Don’t trade presses have editors any more?  Herbie J. Pilato thanks a few of them at the end of his long-in-the-works biography of Elizabeth Montgomery, Twitch Upon a Star (Taylor Trade, 2012), but I’ll bet they all wish he hadn’t.

Pilato, who has written several books on Bewitched and other TV series, certainly had the goods for an important book.  He interviewed the press-shy Montgomery at length in 1989, and corralled most of her husbands, lovers, co-stars, and friends over the years.  There are more than enough stories there to form the basis of a compelling bio, even if Pilato isn’t the world’s most discerning interviewer.  Although it’s probably not his fault that most of Montgomery’s answers were superficial or evasive, it’s hard to let Pilato off the hook when he admits that he didn’t know about her marriage-ending affair with Bewitched producer/director Richard Michaels when he interviewed Michaels (and evidently chose not to confront him again after he got hip).

But what really sinks this disaster are a series of atrocious editing decisions, all of which conspire to make the book about as readable as a sixth-grade school newspaper.  Pilato italicizes not just every single character name in the text, but also random words that don’t require emphasis.  He cites every published source within the body of the text, and detours into multi-page digressions to introduce minor interview sources.  He hands the mic over to dubiously-credentialed historians and “curators” for long, speculative, and generally irrelevant block quotes.

The book, though roughly chronological, constantly twists itself around in specious, confusing connections that Pilato forces between Montgomery’s life and Bewitched (or, for that matter, any pop culture artifact that pops into his head).  Try to follow the logic at the beginning of Chapter Seven: Montgomery appeared in two TV movies in 1979; Lee Remick appeared in the Merchant-Ivory feature The Europeans in 1979; The Europeans “address[ed] the pertinent balance of social graces and reserved emotions – the kind Elizabeth had been addressing her entire life”; Montgomery and Remick had appeared together as sisters in a 1955 episode of Kraft Television Theatre.  That’s an absurdly elaborate wind-up for what turns out to be just a description of that Kraft episode; Remick and Montgomery, it turns out, weren’t even close.  Or this attempt to introduce the 1977 TV movie A Killing Affair: Montgomery was a fan of Star Trek; there was a Star Trek episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” that contained a historically significant interracial kiss; that episode originally aired on November 22, 1968, which was the fifth anniversary of JFK’s assassination; the Bewitched pilot began rehearsals on the day of JFK’s assassination; Montgomery starred opposite the African American O. J. Simpson in A Killing Affair and lobbied unsuccessfully for more love scenes with him.  I was going to recommend Twitch Upon a Star for hardcore Bewitched fans only, but, honestly, I suspect even they will find it too hard to sift out the compelling nuggets about Montgomery’s life that are buried deeply, oh so deeply, within. 

Bad Girls, Good Girls

April 18, 2013

DenhamBook

Lately I’ve been sleeping with bad boys.

Whoops, I mean I’ve been reading Sleeping with Bad Boys (Book Republic, 2006), novelist and Playboy centerfold model Alice Denham’s memoir of the fifties and sixties literary scene in New York.  She crossed paths with most of the major American writers during that period and, as the title implies, bedded many of them.  And even though she dishes on dick size now and then, the book is more of a literary memoir than a boudoir tell-all.   Denham’s frankness about her drive to succeed as a novelist, and to be recognized as an equal by her male peers, is an appealing story, and she sketches a detailed, fascinating portrait of the boozy, thuddingly sexist Manhattan of the immediate pre-Mad Men era.

If you’re wondering why I’m writing about this here, it’s because inevitably Denham also met (and, yes, bedded) a lot of people who were active in television in the fifties.  The scenes overlapped; the literary crowd, including Denham, could make a quick buck in television (or on it, in Denham’s case, since she was cute enough to get hired for TV ads).  Denham describes brief encounters with sometime TV scribes like Gore Vidal, Vance Bourjaily, and Barnaby Conrad.  She had an intimate friendship with James Dean during his live TV days, and grew up (in Washington, D.C.) with Dean’s friend Christine White, an actress who played leads on The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents but disappeared by the mid-sixties.  (Denham writes that White became a “Jesus freak,” recruiting converts on street corners).  Denham dated Ralph Meeker for a while, and Gary Crosby – one of Bing’s balding, no-talent actor sons – once offered her a hundred bucks for sex.  (Did she accept?  Read the book.)

One of Denham’s most interesting brushes with television came just before the quiz show scandals.  She knew Steve Carlin, the producer of The $64,000 Challenge, and Carlin hired her for a “test” broadcast of the show.  Because it wasn’t “real,” Carlin told her which question to lose on, even though she knew the answer, and Denham did as she was told.  Only after the scandals broke did she realize that Carlin probably did that with everyone.  That’s an especially duplicitous method for rigging the shows that I hadn’t heard of before.

Finally there’s Gardner McKay, another of Denham’s fifties boyfriends.  I knew that McKay left Hollywood to become a painter, but I’d always imagined him dabbing away at godawful still lifes on a beach somewhere.  In fact, Denham’s sketch of the six-foot-five dreamboat portrays him as a serious artist, struggling to express himself as she was, and venturing reluctantly into acting out of the same economic necessity that compelled her to shuck her clothes.  Maybe that’s why I always found McKay so fascinating on Adventures in Paradise.  Beneath his woodenness, there was an aloof quality, a hardcore indifference that made him just right to play a footloose, beachcombing adventurer, unfazed by any of the trouble he encountered on the seas and in sketchy ports.  Those other stiffs, the Robert Conrads and the Troy Donahues, were trying too hard.  McKay, as they always used to say of Robert Mitchum, really didn’t give a damn.

 *

FrancisBook

Anne Francis was a more prominent and more ambiguous sex symbol than Denham, a creature unique to the fifties-sixties celluloid realm in which screen goddesses were either lushly available (Kim Novak) or coyly off-limits (Doris Day).  More than anyone else, Francis mashed up both into a confusing package: she had Marilyn Monroe’s beauty mark, adorning a bobbysoxer’s cute, dimpled smile.  She was eminently feminine but, like the equally fascinating Beverly Garland, also a pants-wearing ass-kicker.  Francis had her career-defining role in an action hero role that broke down gender barriers.  Honey West was a terrible show, a condescending and brain-dead dud that producer Aaron Spelling dumbed down from a sparkling Link & Levinson premise.  And yet so many of us bend over backwards to pretend that Honey West doesn’t suck, and that’s entirely because of Francis.  She played the blithe, lithe private eye so confidently, so deliciously, that in our heads it morphs from cartoonish junk that pitted poor Honey against Robin Hood and guys in gorilla suits into a sophisticated show about a heroine who vanquishes serious bad guys (and sleeps with bad boys).

Francis was never quite an A-list star but she remains universally adored by movie and TV buffs, an object of desire for the men and of empowerment for women.  That puts her in the category of performers who warrant book-length treatment, but only – and so often to their detriment – by semi-professional authors working for semi-professional trade presses like McFarland or Bear Manor Media.  Francis’s turn came two years ago in a book by Laura Wagner.

Something of a minor cult figure herself, Laura Wagner has a loyal circle on Facebook, where she writes a de facto blog profiling Golden Age movie actors (many of them tantalizingly obscure).  These “birthday salutes” are pithy, well-researched, and often enriched with revealing quotes from widows and children.  But sometimes the real attraction seems to be the cathartic scorn that Wagner (who also writes for Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age) heaps upon readers who leave comments or ask questions without actually reading her articles.  (You’d think people would stop making that mistake after a while, but they don’t.)

So I was disappointed to find that Wagner’s Anne Francis: The Life and Career (McFarland, 2011) has little of the energy or the inquisitive rigor of her short-form work.  It’s a dutiful, conservative, and surprisingly incurious account of Francis’s eighty years, one that gathers enough facts to intrigue readers but ultimately fails to suss out whatever inner life fueled Francis’s ineffably perky-sexy screen personality.  Francis had two early, failed marriages, one to a troubled filmmaker-poseur named Bamlet Price, the other to a Beverly Hills dentist; and she had two children, one by the dentist and the other adopted when she was forty.  She was a single mother of two daughters when it was still uncommon (her adoption was one of the first granted to an unmarried woman by a California court), and also a flaky enlightenment-seeker of a uniquely SoCal stripe; there were associations with obscure metaphysical churches, forays into motivational speaking, and even a barely-published autobiography called Voices From Home: An Inner Journey.

But we learn little about any of that, or any deeper or darker stories in Francis’s life, apart from what was reported in the personality columns.  Wagner rounds up hundreds of generic Francis quotes from impersonal newspaper interviews, and some livelier and slightly more introspective lines from the chatty and now sadly defunct website that Francis maintained in the early 2000s (an archive of which would probably have more value than this book).  Here and there, the batting about of quotes works.  If you’ve ever wondered why Francis has such a nothing part in William Wyler’s Funny Girl, Wagner stitches together a plausible explanation, and untangles the minor controversy of what complaints Francis did or did not lodge publicly against her co-star Barbra Streisand.  But much of the book is perversely dry.  Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen gives a somewhat juicier peek at Francis’s romantic life, citing flings with Buddy Bregman, actor Liam Sullivan, and director Herman Hoffman, all of which remain uninvestigated by Wagner.  And Tom Weaver, a more incisive historian who knew Francis well and who should have written this book, has published anecdotes that portray her as youthful and down-to-earth:

My favorite day with her: Riding around Westchester County (NY) with her and my brother: Going to Ossining (where she was born), showing her Sing Sing (the Francis family physician was unavailable, so she was delivered by the Sing Sing doctor), finding her childhood home in Peekskill, going to some cemetery and finding the grave of her mother (or father? I forget), etc.

Then a whole bunch of us (two cars worth) got together at some steak house in Irvington for lunch. On the highway afterwards, I realized I’d brought along a couple VHS tapes to give to a buddy (a guy who’d been at the lunch), and forgotten. But my brother pointed ahead on the road and said, “Well, there’s his car.” Anne (riding shotgun) said, “Give me the tapes!” We got up to about 75 or 80 MPH to catch up with the other car, and she kinda got up and stuck her head and shoulders out the window and, at 75 or 80 MPH, she handed the tapes to the driver of the other car.

Why aren’t those stories in the book?  Instead Wagner contents herself by weighing in on just about every Francis performance, which she does in two separate, consecutive slogs through the actress’s CV: a biographical narrative with a heavy emphasis on the work over the personal life, and then an arguably redundant annotated filmography (which comprises almost half of the book’s 257 pages).  This tack does permit Wagner to highlight some overlooked performances and dig up some obscure odds and ends that any Francis cultist will covet.  For instance, there’s Survival, the essentially unreleased experimental debut film (filmed in 1969, unfinished until 1976) by director Michael Campus (The Mack), which was written by the great John D.F. Black and seems to be unfindable today.  There’s Gemini Rising, the only thing Francis directed, a short film set at a rodeo; Francis was a buff,  and it’s unsurprising that she was at home in such an incongruously masculine environment.  Then there was the unsold pilot for a syndicated proto-reality series in which Anne would have fixed up things around the house each week (“plumbing, carpentry, and electricity”!).  Anne Francis, plunging a toilet: I would have watched that show.

Unfortunately, Wagner’s filmography double-tap also draws out a lot of self-indulgent stabs at criticism that are dubiously relevant and mostly devoid of insight.  Here’s one of the strangest misreadings of The Fugitive that I’ve ever run across:

Week after week, Kimble would travel around, befriending strangers, all of whom were supposed to sense his innate goodness and innocence and allow him to move on to the next town to resume his search.  The problem with this is quite apparent herein.  Janssen played Kimble as brooding, mumbling, never making eye contact, always giving evasive answers.  There was nothing attractive or honest about him.

And a review of an Alfred Hitchcock Hour that might have been written for a junior high school newspaper:

Anne gives a sympathetic showing here as a woman dissatisfied with her life and feeling trapped by her loveless marriage, turning to booze and boys to fill the void.  (Nice work, if you can get it.)

            The suspense is palpable in this episode, but it is almost ruined by Rhodes’ one-note performance and Strauss’ wildly fluctuating one.  Physically the darkly gorgeous Rhodes, who was dating Anne at the time, is perfect for the part, and he is convincing in their love scenes, but someone should have coached him on his lines.  Ah, the beautiful but the dumb…

            Strauss is supposed to be childlike, overly possessive, and just a complete fool.  Yet, Strauss’ leer and ominous intonations just about give the twist away.  And what can you say about the supposedly unsettling twist ending?  Sorry, but I laughed.

Meanwhile, Francis’s four-year battle with lung cancer and her death in 2011 are covered in exactly one paragraph.

The tragically missed opportunity here, of course, is that Wagner chose not to talk to any of the dozens of co-workers or relatives who might have offered a peek at the real Anne Francis.  (There’s one odd and somehow appropriately irrelevant exception: novelist Gloria Fickling, the co-creator of Honey West, who had little to do with the television series).  Francis’s Forbidden Planet co-stars (at least four of whom outlived her) and John Ericson, her Honey West leading man, are particularly important sources who go unqueried.  The reasons behind Francis’s firing from Riptide are not explored, even though Jo Swerling, the producer cited as having given the pink-slip to her agent, is still around.  And what about Rhodes – still living and working in Vancouver – or some of the other men Francis dated during the second half of her life?  Francis’s daughters are not hard to find and, amazingly, Dr. Robert Abeloff still lives and practices in Beverly Hills.  How could Wagner resist asking how a dentist seduced one of the most desirable movie stars of her generation?

Wagner does not make a case for her hands-off approach in her introduction but, whatever her reasoning, I think it’s a terrible mistake.  I once complained that one of Martin Grams’s encyclopedic tomes wasn’t a book, it was a file cabinet.  Less ambitious, equally flawed, Anne Francis: The Life and Career isn’t a biography; it’s just a clipping file.

Choices

June 6, 2012

“What you wanna watch now?” Billy Boy asked. “‘Real People’ or ‘WKRP?'”

“Either one.  I don’t care.”

“Or there’s–” Billy fell silent as he tried to find his place in the television guide.  When he finally found it, he read off the third choice, pronouncing it “Greatus Mercun Hee-ro.”

“You want that, huh, Head?” he asked.

“You decide.”

“That one is dumb, I think.  The guy keeps forgettin’ how to fly.  Christ, you’d think if a guy knew how to fly, he’d know how to fly.  He wouldn’t keep forgettin’ it the way this asshole does.”

- Newton Thornburg, Dreamland (1983)

Van Dyke Redux

April 5, 2012

Originally published in 1994, Vince Waldron’s The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book is one of the classic television series companions.  Waldron’s book stands alongside Marc Scott Zicree’s Twilight Zone book, David J. Schow and Jeffrey Frentzen’s Outer Limits tome, Scott Skelton and Jim Benson’s Night Gallery companion, and maybe one or two others at the peak of a narrow little genre.  All of them chronicle the birth and death of a major television series in a way that’s thorough but also inviting and readable, even for someone who hasn’t seen the show (or hasn’t seen it in a while.)  They’ve all been an inspiration to me in how I approach my own research, and I always pull them down off the shelf if I’m writing about one of those shows (or one of the creative people behind them).

When Waldron wrote The Dick Van Dyke Show book, all of the major creative personnel were still alive (save for supporting player and director Jerry Paris).  Waldron was able not only to document the genesis of The Dick Van Dyke Show, but also the development of a number of the show’s famously high-concept episodes, many of which spun out actual incidents in the writers’ or actors’ real lives.  No other sixties situation comedy has received such loving scrutiny.  All you have to do to understand the value of Waldron’s work is to think of all the unrecorded (or at least uncollected) stories that went into the making of The Andy Griffith Show.

Last year was the fiftieth anniversary of The Dick Van Dyke Show and it made sense for Waldron to commemorate the occasion by reprinting the book, this time through the independent Chicago Review Press.  (The original version was published by Hyperion, but the days of big corporate publishers doing this kind of book are long gone.)  Vince was kind enough to send me a review copy, so it is with some reluctance that I suggest the proclamation on the cover – “Revised and Updated Edition” – is something of an overstatement.

This is still a great book, but it’s not a very different one.  The text in both editions is essentially the same.  Waldron has made a number of cosmetic changes to his own prose (which was fine in the first place), and there’s an unnecessary new foreword by Dan Castellaneta (the voice of Homer Simpson).  But if you were hoping for a new trove of updated interviews or an expanded episode guide, you won’t find it.

The primary difference between the two editions is in the illustrations.  The second edition includes a lot of new photos, but there’s a catch – a lot of the stills from the first edition have been removed.  In Chapter Sixteen, for instance, we lose a mustachioed Van Dyke in “The Bad Old Days” and a shot of Jay C. Flippen in “The Return of Happy Spangler,” but gain a backstage shot of Carl Reiner and Danny Thomas on the “Twizzle” set, along with their wives (who don’t look a whole lot like Laura Petrie).

The quality of the photographic reproduction is better in the new edition, and on the whole I think its images are better chosen; they tend to be a bit more episode-specific.  On the other hand, because the page size is smaller, some of the photos that have been carried over are badly cropped.  (In both books, Chapter Ten has a photo of Sheldon Leonard on the phone.  In the second edition, it’s just a head shot; in the first, you get a glimpse of what’s on Leonard’s desk.)

It’s a shame that Waldron didn’t have the space or the finances to make the new Dick Van Dyke Show book a compendium of all the photos he’s collected over the years.  That’s my major complaint about the second edition, although it’s still a flaw that will matter only to completists (and anybody who’s that much of a completist is probably buying up the old stills on Ebay anyhow).  In short, if you already have the first edition, you don’t need to upgrade to the new one, and if you don’t – wait, what’s wrong with you?  Get this book, already!

You’d think that a historian, reviving his pet topic and most important work after almost twenty years, wouldn’t be able to resist a major overhaul.  Waldron had the whole story in his first version, and there’s nothing that needed to be changed . . . but still, after two decades as the “Dick Van Dyke Show Guy,” wouldn’t new anecdotes, articles, archival documents, and bits of trivia come to him, even if Waldron wasn’t actively seeking them?  Maybe, maybe not.

I can’t speak for Vince Waldron.  But in my own case, I published an account of East Side / West Side in 1997, and then revised and expanded substantially before I reprinted it on this site ten years later.  Since since then, there are still more new interviews, new archival research, and new corrections that have landed in my lap; at some point I’ll need to do another pass at it, or at least a few appendices on the blog.  I have some enthusiasm for that, because East Side / West Side remains an underappreciated and underreported show.  On the other hand, since I first wrote about The Invaders in 2000, I’ve also become “the Invaders guy,” and I wear that mantle a bit more uneasily.  There are other historians who know and love that show more than I do, and I feel like I said all I have to say on the subject in that piece.  When people come calling about The Invaders, I’m always afraid I can’t deliver whatever they’re asking for.  Being the keeper of the flame can be a pleasure or a chore.

Frankengarner

January 26, 2012

“One of the problems for historians of most arts is the ‘transitional figure.’”

- Dennis Bingham, “Shot From the Sky: The Gypsy Moths and the End of Something,” collected in A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film

“[H]e spent the rest of his life trying to figure out what had gone wrong.”

- Bill Krohn, “Jonah,” collected in A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film

Brian Kellow’s new biography of Pauline Kael, one of my lifelong inspirations as a writer, has so many flaws that it would take a second book to enumerate them.  Since Kael falls outside the purview of this blog – regrettably, “television” was something of a dirty word to her, a shorthand for commercial aspirations and diminished attention spans; although Kael may have had some enthusiasm for the made-for-television movies of the seventies, this is one of several points on which Kellow contradicts himself – I don’t have to do any enumerating.  But I will point out one comparatively minor flaw in Kellow’s book that got under my skin: Kellow indulges in a few snotty asides against “academia,” a phrase he uses so generically that it’s hard to tell exactly who he’s trying to insult, or why.  Like Bill Maher or Keith Olbermann, Kellow comes off as so obnoxious that we want to argue back, even when we agree with him.  (The royal “we” is used in honor of La Pauline, although it’s one of her devices that makes me uneasy; I’m afraid to emulate it, although Kael often deploys it with great power.)  I’ve staked out my own position as essentially anti-academic, but even I have to acknowledge that it’s absurd to suggest that no one on a tenure track is doing valuable writing or research on art and culture.  The question is whether those scholars who are creating good work represent the rule or the exception.

Which brings us to the first item in today’s book report: a recent collection of scholarly essays that examine the work of the director John Frankenheimer.  I picked up the book, which was compiled and edited by Murray Pomerance and R. Barton Palmer, in part because I discovered that its contributors cite my own work a few times (yes, it is possible to accidentally search your own name on Google Books; really, I swear that’s how it happened), and also because I remain obsessed with every outpost of Frankenheimeriana.  As far as I can recall, I’ve only returned to the subject of Frankenheimer’s early television productions once since I wrote that Senses of Cinema essay, but I know I’ll go back again someday.  As Frankenheimer’s work was in its time the most pyrotechnic, the most resistant to the technological limitations of early television, so it stands out today as the most durable, the most modern, the most cinematic, the most alive.

The title of Pomerance and Palmer’s collection is a famous refrain from The Manchurian Candidate, and an odd choice, since (unless I dozed off for a minute) none of the writers in the book quote it.  I would have liked to know why the editors felt that line had an overarching meaning within Frankenheimer’s oeuvre – a meaning even more potent than the trope of paranoia, a word that’s used in nearly every essay in the book.  The title characterizes Frankenheimer as a maverick, a loner.  But while the director may have thought of himself that way, one of the tragedies of the his career is that he was unable to function as a true independent.  Not only did Frankenheimer’s vision require budgets of some size, but in interviews he made it clear that he was invested in the idea of a commercial cinema, of box office victory and mainstream recognition.

Within that context, the book’s key essay may be Jerry Mosher’s well-researched account of the making of Frankenheimer’s Impossible Object (1973), a film that self-consciously attempted a non-linear, ambiguous narrative in the style of Resnais or, in particular, Losey.  Mosher carefully places the ideas behind Impossible Object (incidentally, the only theatrical Frankenheimer feature I have not seen), and its catastrophic post-production phase and consequent non-release, within the context of the personal and professional lives of the director and his collaborators (chiefly Nicholas Mosley, the original writer and later a memoirist who wrote insightfully about Frankenheimer).  Impossible Object became a self-fulfilling prophecy (or Prophecy, as it turned out): Frankenheimer took the film’s failure as an affirmation that art cinema was not a viable path for him, and probably as an excuse to embrace a belief system to which he was he already bound.

Other writers who delve in detail into the production histories of individual films include Matthew R. Bernstein, who describes some of the fascinating real-life figures and incidents upon which The Train was based, and James Morrison, whose essay on The Iceman Cometh is a model diagram of how a film’s meaning emerges from its maker’s technical choices.  Charles Ramírez Berg’s astute formal analysis of The Manchurian Candidate properly contextualizes the film’s imagery as an outgrowth of Frankenheimer’s live television technique.  Berg includes a detailed consideration of “The Comedian” (a terrific Rod Serling-scripted Playhouse 90) as an exemplar of the director’s televisual style.  And I was pleased to see my two favorite underdogs in the Frankenheimer filmography, The Gypsy Moths and I Walk the Line, become the subjects of thoughtful consideration, in pieces by Dennis Bingham and Linda Ruth Williams, respectively.

A Little Solitaire also offers ample coverage of Frankenheimer’s perhaps overstated “comeback” in cable television during the nineties.  Most of these pieces are problematic, but Bill Krohn’s ambitious “Jonah,” fittingly the final chapter in the book, uses the late television productions and some of Frankenheimer’s worst theatrical features (as well as “Forbidden Area,” the premiere segment of Playhouse 90, which has only recently resurfaced in private collections), to stitch together the intriguing argument that, following the assassination of his friend Robert F. Kennedy, Frankenheimer became something of a covert, disillusioned radical/nihilist, who consistently charted “the decline and fall of American liberalism.”  I wasn’t entirely persuaded (for one thing, “Jonah” offers without irony the phrase “a superb, understated performance by Ben Affleck”), but Krohn is the liveliest writer in this book, which counts for a lot.

“Coffee has yet another meaning.  As Wolfgang Schivelbusch points out, while there is a connection between daze (the condition produced by the consumption of alcohol) and mystification, and more generally between the use of liquors and group feeling, the coffeehouse has throughout its history been dedicated to the support and preservation of the individual identity: ‘In coffeehouses the I is central.'”

- Murray Pomerance, “Ashes, Ashes: Structuring Emptiness in All Fall Down,” collected in A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film

About half of the essays in A Little Solitaire didn’t sell me on their theses; or, to be less charitable, they read as pointless exercises in publish-or-perish log-rolling.  That may be a better-than-average success rate for this type of collection.  It’s disappointing to see not even a single essay focused solely on Frankenheimer’s early television work (although the book’s invaluable appendix compiles a more complete Frankenheimer videography than I’ve seen before); but it’s also unsurprising, given that one would have to be a collector, or else log considerable archival hours in Los Angeles or New York, in order to see a large amount of that material.

What I find less easy to excuse is the narrowness of the methodologies on display in this collection.  Only a few of the authors (Bernstein; Pomerance, writing about All Fall Down; and Morrison, who dredged up cinematographer Ralph Woolsey’s memories of filming The Iceman Cometh in an obscure AFI seminar) attempted any archival research, even though Frankenheimer’s tempting and extensive papers are available at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  And the only original oral history in evidence is in Pomerance’s introductory essay, which includes a few superficial quotes from the actress Evans Evans (the director’s widow), and Richard Dysart, who appeared in a single Frankenheimer film (Prophecy, perhaps his worst).  I don’t understand why these approaches, which would yield more concrete insights and discoveries than the kind of tautological interdisciplinary lint-picking that is evident even in some of the better essays in this book (does Birdman of Alcatraz really benefit from being “read” “through” Foucault?), are undertaken so infrequently.  Are they just out of fashion in academia?  Is picking up the phone or getting on a plane somehow behaviorally (or, in the second case, financially) beyond the pale for a college professor?  Or would the weight of actual history be too much of a reality check on a writer who prefers instead to mash an artist’s work into the mold of his or her own professional specialty, whether or not it fits?

*

“Didn’t enjoy working with Tony Franciosa, who kept abusing the stunt men.  He purposely wasn’t pulling his punches in fight scenes, and he kept doing it despite my warnings to stop . . . so I had to pop him one.”

- James Garner, The Garner Files

The succinct sketch of John Frankenheimer that James Garner offers in his long-awaited memoir, The Garner Files, is probably as valuable an observation as any offered in A Little Solitaire.  Garner, who starred in Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, thought the director was something of a humorless control freak, who “didn’t want anyone with an opinion” in the cast.  But Garner admired Frankenheimer’s encyclopedic attention to detail and his ability to command a production as huge and potentially dangerous as Grand Prix.

A number of my friends, of both the real and Facebook varieties, have been praising and quoting from The Garner Files.  I assume that’s because Garner is one of the few living stars from whom many of us would really want to hear at some length, and also (more importantly) because Garner does not shy away from, and indeed even seems to relish, naming and shaming anyone who ever pissed him off.  It’s a long and entertaining list, one that includes Charles Bronson (“a pain in the ass”), Glen A. Larson (a “thief”), and Lee Marvin (another “pain in the ass”), among others.

In The Garner Files, Garner comes across as a straight shooter, smarter and more introspective than the most of characters he played.  He is, for instance, quite conscious of how the laid-back, “natural” quality that was his trademark was in fact carefully constructed.  (Garner’s theory is that his studied casualness emerged out of a process of getting past his stage fright.)  The book ends with a section of testimonials from Garner’s family and friends, which include major movie stars as well as racing pals and “below the line” crew members.  That kind of victory roll would constitute an exhibition of appalling arrogance in almost anyone else’s memoirs, but Garner has allowed his friends to tell stories on him.  Some of them are flattering, but others hint at Garner’s fallibility and his legendary temper.  (The words of Rockford Files co-star Joe Santos, in their entirety: “Garner says he’s easygoing, but he’s lying.  He’s angry and desperate, just like I am.  That’s why Rockford has always worked so well, because Jim is coming from a very passionate, driven place.”)

Garner is so resolutely forthright that his book is worth reading, but it’s hardly one of the great or even very good autobiographies.  Garner acknowledges his collaborator, Jon Winokur, with typical generosity, but that doesn’t prevent the book from coming to a dead stop whenever Winokur takes over to fill in the basic facts about Garner’s movies and television projects.  The sections on the star’s two major TV series, Maverick and The Rockford Files, feel especially ghost-written, and add little or nothing to the stories told in Ed Robertson’s books on those shows.  Garner comes to life a bit more when discussing his favorite films (The Great Escape, The Americanization of Emily, Grand Prix), but I sense that his real passions are for boring shit like golf, auto racing, making money, and (to use his oft-repeated term) “decking” people.

Garner presents himself as a defender of the little guy, and I don’t doubt the truth of that.  But he also seems to have enjoyed maneuvering himself into situations in which he could punch out people and – because the punchee was behaving badly in some way – still hold onto his image as a good guy.  One such person, a golf course heckler, turned out to be a Rockford fan with alcohol and drug problems, who cried after Garner knocked him down.  (Again, full credit to Garner for leaving those details in, even if they are presented with a not-my-fault shrug.)

Garner’s particular ethics of violence may make him less of a bully than some of the bullies he criticizes (including Frankenheimer), but he strikes me as a bully nonetheless, a hothead who cultivated his temper and unloaded on people whenever he knew he could get away with it.  Is a wealthy, powerful, and well-liked movie star ever likely to find himself in situations where he has to hit someone?  Was socking Tony Franciosa really an act of standing up for defenseless stuntmen (note the oxymoronic aspect of that phrase) – many of whom probably later found themselves on sets where Franciosa had the power to fire them and Garner wasn’t around to intercede – or was it just an ostentatious display of machismo?  I still love the television James Garner, the pragmatic, risk-averse “reluctant hero” (Garner’s own term) who made Maverick and Rockford so distinctive and down-to-earth and compulsively watchable.  But after reading his book, I wonder whether I would like the real James Garner.

The TV Watcher

August 11, 2011

The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie.  Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books.  I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember.  What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men in with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.

- Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1961)

The Moviegoer is a wonderful novel about Binx Bolling, an easygoing fellow from an old New Orleans family.  Binx leads a charmed life in which he makes money, seduces his secretary, and fulfills his modest social obligations with apparent ease.  But his glib exterior conceals a crippling lack of purpose, and an internal and mostly ineffectual search for meaning that Bolling relates to the reader (and no one else) in prose that is both funny and poignant.  It is a modernist novel, but Percy anticipates the cinephilia common to postmodern writers like Robert Coover or Steve Erickson.  Lacking his own reservoir of substantial incidents or ideas to draw upon from his own life, Binx Bolling recalls moments from films or television shows as a means, once removed, of relating his thoughts and feelings.

Binx is not merely a moviegoer, but also a regular watcher of television.  On two occasions he describes the plot of a television episode he has seen recently:

In recent years I have noticed that the name Stephanie has come into fashion. Three of my acquaintances in Gentilly have daughters named Stephanie.  Last night I saw a TV play about a nuclear test explosion.  Keenan Wynn played a troubled physicist who had many a bad moment with his conscience.  He took solitary walks in the desert.  But you could tell in his heard of hearts he was having a very good time with his soul-searching.  “What right have we to do what we are doing?” he would ask his colleagues in a bitter voice.  “It’s my four-year-old daughter I’m really thinking of,” he told another colleague and took out a snapshot.  “What kind of future are we building for her?” “What is your daughter’s name?” asked the colleague, looking at the picture.  “Stephanie,” said Keenan Wynn in a gruff voice.

And later:

I switch on television and sit directly in front of it, bolt upright and hands on knees in my ladder-back chair.  A play comes on with Dick Powell.  He is a cynical financier who is trying to get control of a small town newspaper.  But he is baffled by the kindliness and sincerity of the town folk.  Even the editor whom he is trying to ruin is nice to him.  And even when he swindles the editor and causes him to have a heart attack from which he later dies, the editor is as friendly as ever and takes the occasion to give Powell a sample of his homespun philosophy.  “We’re no great shakes as a town,” says the editor on his deathbed, teetering on the very brink of eternity.  “But we’re friendly.”  In the end Powell is converted by these good folk and instead of trying to control the paper, applies to the editor’s daughter for the job of reporter so he can fight against political corruption.

At first I racked my memory, and then skimmed the videographies of Keenan Wynn and Dick Powell, in an attempt to identify these TV plays.  But, while every film that Binx Bolling sees is a real one, I have a suspicion that Percy invented these two television episodes.  Binx’s (and Percy’s) attitude toward movies is sometimes bemused but often reverent, as in the quote at the top of this post.  There’s a long, lovely passage in which Binx, his girlfriend, and his disabled half-brother go to a drive-in and see an obscure Clint Walker western, Fort Dobbs (1958).  The two brothers take a shared, unarticulated pleasure in certain familiar western tropes, which pass over the head of the young woman in their company.  The cinema is a common language that offers a special pleasure to the initiated.

By contrast, Percy holds television in somewhat lesser esteem, and his descriptions of the two TV shows Binx watches take on a mocking tone.  The plots of these TV shows are a catalog of sentimental cliches which, unlike the moments from Stagecoach and The Third Man that Binx recalls, offer not even a second of iconic truth in which Binx can find meaning.  I suspect that Percy constructed these plots with too much specificity to have cribbed them from real teleplays.

But . . . I could be wrong.  I haven’t seen all, or even many, of the obscure anthology dramas in which Keenan Wynn and Dick Powell guest-starred during the late fifties (when The Moviegoer is set).  The Wynn segment could be any number of things; the Powell could be one of the several dozen Four Star Playhouses that Powell headlined.  Does anyone out there in TV Land recognize either of these as an actual television episode?

I discovered The Fugitive on TV.

The title character was my imagined self as sexual igniter.  He was running from a murder charge as trumped-up as mine was real.  The show was the epic of shifting and lonely America.  Love was alway unconsummated.  Yearning was continuous and transferred monogamously.  Dr. Richard Kimble had moments of stunning truth with women weekly.  The real world interdicted his efforts to claim them and create a separate world mutually safe.  The guest-star actresses were torturously aware and rooted in complex and frustrated selfhood.  They all try to love him.  He tries to love them all.  It never happens.  It all goes away.

I fucking lost it and wept every Tuesday night . . . .

It wasn’t the way they looked at Dr. Kimble.  It was who they were and the path of their hurt up to him.

- James Ellroy (who turned 15 in 1963, and blamed himself for his mother’s murder five years earlier), in his memoir The Hilliker Curse (2010)

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