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’m not a gun!” snarls Vint Bonner at one point in the episode “Cheyenne Express.” 

I guess he forgot the name of his own show. 

The Restless Gun is another one of those fifties westerns that centers a gunslinger who’s not really a gunslinger.  Gunslingers were supposed to be the bad guys and, four and a half decades before Deadwood, a bad guy couldn’t be the protagonist of a TV show.  Have Gun – Will Travel and Wanted: Dead or Alive, with their fractured titles, were the important entries in this peculiar subgenre, the ones that maintained a measure of ambiguity about how heroic their heroes were.  If you’ve never heard of The Restless Gun . . . well, it’s not because it doesn’t have a colon or an em-dash in the title.

The Restless Gun bobs to the top of the screener pile now because of the reactions to the obit for producer David Dortort that I tossed off last week.  Several readers posted comments seconding my indifference toward Bonanza but suggesting that Dortort’s second creation, The High Chaparral, might be worth a look.  I didn’t have any High Chaparrals handy, but I did have Timeless Media’s twenty-three episode volume of The Restless Gun, which Dortort produced during the two TV seasons that immediately preceded Bonanza.

The Restless Gun marked Dortort’s transition from promising screenwriter to cagey TV mogul, but I suspect Dortort was basically . . . wait for it . . . a hired gun.  He didn’t create show, he didn’t produce the pilot, and he contributed original scripts infrequently.  The Restless Gun probably owes its mediocrity more to MCA, the company that “packaged” the series and produced it through its television arm Revue Productions, than to Dortort. 

The pedigree of The Restless Gun is convoluted.  It originated as a pilot broadcast on Schlitz Playhouse, produced by Revue staffer Richard Lewis and written by N. B. Stone, Jr. (teleplay) and Les Crutchfield (story).  When The Restless Gun went to series, Stone and Crutchfield’s names were nowhere to be seen, but the end titles contained a prominent credit that read “Based on characters created by Frank Burt.”  Burt’s name had gone unmentioned on the pilot.  The redoubtable Boyd Magers reveals the missing piece: that The Restless Gun was actually based on a short-lived radio series called The Six Shooter, which starred James Stewart.  In the pilot, the hero retained his name from radio, Britt Ponset, but in the series he became Vint Bonner.  I don’t know exactly what happened between the pilot and the series, but I’ll bet that Burt wasn’t at all happy about seeing his name left off the former, and that some serious legal wrangling ensued. 

You’ll also note that Burt still didn’t end up with a pure “Created by” credit.  Well into the sixties, after Revue had become Universal Television, MCA worked energetically to deprive pilot writers of creator credits and the royalties that came with them.

The star of The Restless Gun was John Payne, whose deal with MCA made him one of the first TV stars to snag a vanity executive producer credit.  Critics often tag Payne as a second-tier Dick Powell – both were song-and-dance men turned film noir heroes – but even in his noir phase Powell never had the anger and self-contempt that Payne could pull out of himself.  Payne was more like a second-tier Sterling Hayden – which is not a bad thing to be.  But while Payne is watchable in The Restless Gun, he’s rarely inspired. 

If Payne looks mildly sedated as he wanders through The Restless Gun, it could be the scripts that put him in that state.  The writing relies on familiar, calculated clichés that pander to the audience.  “Thicker Than Water,” by Kenneth Gamet, guest stars Claude Akins as a card sharp whose catchphrase is, “If you’re looking for sympathy, it’s in the dictionary.”  I’ll cut any script that gives Claude Akins the chance to say that line (twice!) a lot of slack.  But then Akins turns out to be the absentee dad of a ten year-old boy who thinks his father is dead and . . . well, you can probably fill in the rest. 

Another episode, “Man and Boy,” has Bonner trying to convince a sheriff that a wanted killer is actually the lawman’s son.  Payne and Emile Meyer, playing the sheriff, step through these well-trod paces with a modest amount of conviction – and then the ending pulls a ridiculous cop-out.  Dortort, he of the Cartwright dynasty, may have had a fixation on father-son relationships, but he certainly wasn’t interested in the Freudian psychology that could have given them some dramatic shading.

Dortort’s own teleplay for “The Lady and the Gun” is unusual in that it places Bonner in no physical jeopardy at all.  It’s too slight to be of lasting interest, but “The Lady and the Gun,” wherein Bonner gets his heart broken by a woman (Mala Powers) who has no use for marriage, has a tricky ending and some dexterous dialogue.  The low stakes and the surfeit of gunplay look ahead to Bonanza, but I’m not sure how much of the script is Dortort’s.  On certain episodes, including this one, Frank Burt’s credit expands to “Based on a story and characters created by.”  I’m guessing that means those episodes were rewrites of old radio scripts that Burt (who was a major contributor to Dragnet, and a good writer) penned for The Six Shooter.  So what to do?  It’s hard to draw a bead on Dortort as a writer because didn’t write very much, and when he did, he usually shared credit with someone else.  Maybe that’s a verdict in itself.

There is one pretty good episode of The Restless Gun that illustrates how adventurous and complex the show could have been, had Dortort wanted it that way.  It’s called “Cheyenne Express,” and I’m convinced its virtues are entirely attributable to the writer, Christopher Knopf.  But Knopf, and his impressive body of work, are a subject I plan to tackle another time and in another format.  So for now I’ll leave you to discover “Cheyenne Express” (yes, it’s in the DVD set) on your own.

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In 1958, ABC lobbed an eight-year nightmare of emasculation onto the airwaves, cloaking it under an innocuous title: The Donna Reed Show.  Less blatantly Freudian than the same year’s Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, this domestic situation comedy nevertheless postulated its housewife protagonist as a superwoman capable of rendering the male of the species all but obsolete.  The surname of Reed’s emblematic TV family was Stone – same as the stuff they build prisons out of.

The eponymous star kept her own first name as the all-purpose wife/mother.  Two kids (teenaged Mary and younger son Jeff) and work-at-home pediatrician dad Alex made up the rest of The Donna Reed Show‘s prototypically nuclear clan, huddled together in a cramped-looking suburban two-story. 

The standard rap on The Donna Reed Show is that it presents Reed as an impossibly idealized image of domesticity.  But in digging through the first ten or so episodes, I was struck by how far Donna’s superpowers extended beyond the regimen of mending clothes and packing lunches. 

The debut outing, “Weekend Trip,” has Donna scheming to clear the family schedule so they can enjoy a brief vacation together.  And I mean scheming: think Lady Macbeth.  Donna manipulates Alex’s colleagues and friends into covering his patients or dropping their demands on his time.  She even usurps his professional status, figuring out a psychological motive behind a boy’s illness that eludes Dr. Stone.  Alex still manages to wreck things at the last minute, by forgetting to deliver an important phone message – Carl Betz’s “oh, fuck” reaction shot is the biggest laugh in the episode – but Donna has this problem solved in seconds, and doesn’t even deign to issue the expected scolding.  From the outset the message is clear: Hubby might be the breadwinner, but his stethoscope is as limp as his … well, you know. 

With each new episode, Donna seems to annex another sector of masculine territory.  She teaches Jeff how to box (episode two, “Pardon My Gloves”).  She takes a group of boys on a camping trip (episode three, “The Hike”).  Finally the question of Donna’s incontrovertible superiority comes to the fore in the fourth segment, “Male Ego,” which really chucks poor Alex under the bus: Mary delivers an overblown speech extolling her mother’s virtues, and dad comes off as a whinging ingrate when he bristles at being undervalued.  By the time the infamous twin beds turn up in the spousal bedroom during in the final scene of “Male Ego,” you can’t help but muse that it’s Donna who decides if and when they get pushed together, and Alex who’s on the bottom during the activity that ensues.

The punchlines to these gags undercut a full-on feminist reading.  Hopeless at tent construction and other outdoor skills, Donna hires a caterer to provide the hunter’s stew.  But the overwhelming impression is of a family unit in which husband and even kids are superfluous appendages. 

It’s possible to assess much of the popular American entertainment of the fifties as a post-war retrenchment of traditional gender roles.  This is especially relevant in television, where the major works of the first generation of dramatists (Rod Serling, Reginald Rose, Stirling Silliphant) often retreated into all-male worlds, or unfolded as one-sided and rather hysterical monologues on female sexuality and independence.  (Silliphant’s early Route 66 segment “A Lance of Straw,” available on DVD, gives this type of anxiety a rigorous workout.)  In that context, The Donna Reed Show seems less about female empowerment (or its opposite) than male fear.

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I have, of course, offered a somewhat radical counter-reading here.  But I think the worthwhile comedy shows of the fifties sustain these kinds of sidelong interpretations, and even encourage them.  Programs like The Donna Reed Show or Father Knows Best are thought of as reinforcing social norms – the Eisenhower ideal of the nuclear family, pounded into your head until you want to impale yourself on a white picket fence.  But humor derives from the defiance of expectations, so it follows that only the most banal (and now forgotten) early sitcoms could have failed to challenge, in some way, the institutions that they depicted. 

For instance.  I’ve always thought of Leave It to Beaver not as a wholesome family show but as an exercise in witty insult humor.  You have June’s cheery putdowns of Ward’s stuffiness; his slow-on-the-uptake double takes; Lumpy Rutherford and his father Fred, sharply etched caricatures of mediocrity; and of course Eddie Haskell, a human diarrhea of sarcasm that splatters all over every totem of ethics or decorum.  And watch Wally Cleaver closely.  Tony Dow’s “aw, shucks” delivery, and the long penumbra of Ken Osmond’s more verbal Eddie, conceal a steady, passive-aggressive stream of unanswered rebukes to every correction offered by his parents, and a devastatingly accurate assessment of “the little creep”‘s (Beaver’s) shortcomings.  It’s the prototype for a later, raunchier classic of spoofed suburban malaise, Married with Children, and I’m very much convinced that Beaver’s original audience was in on the joke.

Apart from a few clips, I’ve never seen The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but I’m fascinated by Tim Lucas’s considerations of the surrealism and technical innovation in that series – qualities which would seem to refute, or at least sidestep, the common perceptions of the Nelsons’ fourteen-season opus as a simple-minded exercise in domestic harmony.  Lucas’s work strikes me as a useful example of how to look at media that might seem dated or irrelevant today: through contemporary eyes, but with a close and open-minded examination of the texts. 

Fifties sitcoms seem particularly vulnerable to brutalization at the hands of ideologues.  Nostalgists respond to them with misty-eyed diatribes exalting the narrow-minded, conformist “family values” of the fifties.  In this limited view, The Donna Reed Show becomes a club to wield against today’s more permissive popular culture or even (by devaluing that which the Stones’ world excludes) against the sort of social progress that has made possible the election of a black president.  Where’s that African-American version of the Stone family?  Oh, right – they were busy getting block-busted out of the suburbs over on East Side/West Side.

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve run into academics who see fifties sitcoms as objects of condescension or ridicule.  When I was in film school, the old cliche of June Cleaver wearing pearls while doing housework came up as an example of how out of touch shows like Leave It to Beaver were with the reality of their own era.  When I pointed out that June wore pearls because the cameraman sought to conceal Barbara Billingsley’s unattractive neck – and cited a source, Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961 – no one was particularly interested.  But to me, such clues are critical in trying to gauge the gap between reality and representation.

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I’ve drifted pretty far away from The Donna Reed Show, which I had not sampled until its first season appeared on DVD (in an attractive, well-produced set from Arts Alliance).  Is the show any good?  It’s certainly competent: there are a few laughs in every episode, and more wit and intelligence than I expected. 

I wish I knew more about the production history of the series.  The producer was Tony Owen – Reed’s husband – and the associate producer, William Roberts, who is also credited with creating the characters, was apparently the same screenwriter who co-wrote The Magnificent Seven.  Roberts penned the funniest episode I’ve seen so far (“Change Partners and Dance”), but The Donna Reed Show doesn’t appear to be the work of a single distinctive voice.  Instead, it’s a professional, anonymous effort assembled by a large pool of busy freelance comedy writers.  The scripts are inconsistent, not only in quality but in sophistication.  “Pardon My Gloves” includes a Hitchcock joke and a subplot about a mangled local theatre production of A Doll’s House that’s only funny if you know a little bit about Ibsen.  But in the same episode, Jeff comes home with a black eye (and then another one), and each time his family seems concerned primarily with whether or not he succeeded in beating the other boy even more savagely.

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The direction, mostly by Oscar Rudolph, is routine, although the timing and energy of the cast is pretty lively.  Someone made the clever decision to write all of Jeff Stone’s lines at an adult level, and Paul Petersen’s delivery of these precocious throwaways is often hilarious (much more so than Danny Bonaduce’s obnoxious take on a similar character in The Partridge Family).  Petersen and Shelly Fabares have a fast-paced, natural chemistry, and – as in Leave It to Beaver – their banter is more insult-based than one might expect.  (Sample lines from the episode “Change Partners and Dance.”  Mary: “What a revolting little freak . . . He makes me sick.  I think if I had my way I’d drown all boys at birth.”  Jeff: “A formula guaranteed to get rid of ten pounds of ugly fat . . . Cut off your head!”)  

Even Carl Betz, a total stiff in his dramatic turn as Judd For the Defense (for which he won an Emmy), proves a nimble straight man.

Oddly, the weakest member of the ensemble is Donna Reed herself.  Reed is monotonous, even cloying, in her unflappability; her perma-smile has a robotic quality, like an android grandma from The Twilight Zone.  Much more than the material, it’s the star’s unwillingness to bestow any hint of human frailty upon Donna Stone that gives The Donna Reed Show its Stepford reputation.  Donna Stone is the antithesis of the warm (and, not insignificantly, ethnic) mama figure of Molly Goldberg. 

It’s easy to imagine a child burying his or her face in Mrs. Goldberg’s ample bosom for comfort, but in a similar scene on The Donna Reed Show, I’d be scrutinizing Reed’s face for subtext: will this embrace muss my hair or wrinkle my apron?  She’s the kind of parent whose perfection most kids would compare themselves against and come up lacking.  How could Jeff and Mary hope to reach their twenties without becoming seething, rebellious head cases?  Now that’s one made-for-TV reunion movie I would have liked to see.

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