Further Into the Beaver

November 16, 2012

Late-breaking news here, of vital import to classic TV fans everywhere.

Two and a half years ago, I offered a no-prize to any reader who could identify any episode of Leave It to Beaver in which June Cleaver actually uttered the line, “Ward, you were awfully hard on the Beaver last night.”

Nobody has stepped forward to claim that prize.

Now, however, it would appear that Todd VanDerWerff, the AV Club’s indefatigable television columnist, has found the infamous episode.  Sort of.

According to Todd, it’s the second season entry “Beaver’s Ring” (ahem), and the actual wording is “Don’t you think you’re being a little bit hard on the Beaver?”  Which is kinda dirty, but not as perfectly dirty as the oft-quoted version.  You really need the past tense to suggest that – let’s see, how can I put this delicately? – that Ward was hittin’ it animal-style.

So again I pose the question: is that the closest Barbara Billingsley ever came to saying the infamous line, or is there another utterance that gets closer to the urban-legend?

In the meantime, be sure to read Todd’s piece in its entirety.  His descriptions of ten key Beaver episodes are an excellent reminder of why the show was so quietly transgressive, and also endlessly likable.

Nostalgia’s Menace

July 29, 2011

I never really met Jay North, who played Dennis the Menace on television, but I saw him once at an autograph show.  North, who has long been as much of a poster-boy for the fucked-up child star as you can be without actually dying from it, was slumped face-down over his table, cradling his head in his arms amid a puddle of eight-by-ten glossies.  Jeannie Russell, his former co-star, stood behind him, hand on his shoulder, quietly talking him back from whatever ledge of mental anguish on which North was perched.  What struck me as I studied this scene was how routinized it seemed: I got the idea that these two had acted out this ritual countless times before, a sad-funny part of arrested adult lives built upon vague memories of a childhood in which they remained trapped like the proverbial bugs in amber.  And although the spectacle might have been new to this particular roomful of fans, I was certain that I wasn’t in the midst of the first crowd that had tiptoed awkwardly around North in a public setting, waiting for him to get himself together.  Exactly who, I wondered, was benefitting from this transaction?  What does Jay North get from these people?  Why is an old photo of a burned-out child actor worth five bucks and a trip to North Hollywood to anyone?  Nostalgia is the slowest-acting poison.

Jay North: Rebel without a comb.

Anyhow: This month brings us the DVD release of the second season of Dennis the Menace (the third, out of four, has already been announced for the fall, suggesting unexpectedly robust sales), and Shout Factory, in its usual puckish fashion, saw fit to send me this set but not the first season, which came out back in March.  Ordinarily, I’m a completist about this kind of thing, but then I decided that if there was ever a series that did not need to be seen from the beginning, it was probably Dennis the Menace.

My Nick at Nite memories of Dennis the Menace, which I found agreeable as a child, were of an epic, all-out guerilla combat between male Bad Seed Dennis and querulous, nasty old retiree Mr. Wilson.  This turns out to be inaccurate: the show is sweeter, gentler, blander, and less funny than I recalled.  Though it is based, of course, on the long-running Sunday strip by Hank Ketcham – himself apparently a nasty old man who based and named his creation after his own attention-deficit-disordered son, then became estranged from the child who earned him millions – the TV Dennis affects a comics-page atmosphere only in the repetition of cloying catchphrases (“Great Scott!” “Good ol’ Mister Wilson!”) and the exaggerated costumes of Dennis and his know-it-all nemesis Margaret (the aforementioned Ms. Russell).  The rest is straight sitcom-generic, a second-tier entry in the stable of cheap Screen Gems domestic comedies, which also included Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and Hazel.

Like those other, better Screen Gems comedies, Dennis the Menace tried for warmth as much as for humor; and it’s a sad reality that warmth, especially yesterday’s warmed-over warmth, does not age as well as a good gag.  The premise hints at a dire form of suburban combat: a symbiotic bond of irritation between two essentially unpleasant people, a bratty child and a mean-spirited retiree, Maple Street denizens burdened by opposite extremes of age but both with too much time on their hands.  Dennis Mitchell is sometimes bratty, occasionally disobedient or disingenuous, but more often just accident-prone or hyperactive.  Mr. Wilson is an asshole and a hypocrite, susceptible to flattery or bribery, querulous by default but obsequious when the potential for personal gain presents itself.  Whenever he has a chance to finally vanquish his enemy, though, as when Dennis runs away in the season opener “Out of Retirement,” Wilson turns nice and sees to it that no harm comes to the boy.  (Paul Mavis, in a customarily credulous and exhaustive survey of the first season, suggests that the earliest episodes offered a livelier and more maleficent Dennis.)  It is probably wise that the show’s creators chose to soften these characters, because I see no one on the show’s roster of creative talent – Screen Gems staff producer James Fonda, B-movie directors William D. Russell and Charles Barton, a list of journeymen writers, and a less than ideal cast – with the talent to have made the show darker without also making it impossible to take.  But as a result Dennis the Menace has no subtext, no edge, neither the nuanced view of human behavior that distinguished Leave It to Beaver nor even the fascinating, barely suppressed hysteria of Donna Reed.

My favorite of the dozen Dennis episodes I watched this week was “Dennis and the Radio Set,” in which Mr. Wilson finds a cache of cash hidden in an old radio, purchased (thanks to Dennis’s meddling) at auction.  Mr. Wilson and Mitchell pere immediately start spending the money in their heads, until Dennis stops them in their tracks by insisting that a search be undertaken for the true owner.  The adults agree to place a classified ad in the local paper, but word it so that the person to whom the cash belongs is unlikely to come forward.  The ethical positions taken by the various characters – Dennis as idealist and moral compass, Mr. Wilson and the usually unassailable Henry Mitchell as morally compromised or, at least, pragmatic to excess – are not consistent with those they affect in other episodes.  But they are, at least, mildly surprising.  The teleplay (credited to Fonda, who was not primarily a writer) also finds room for a not-quite-absurdist gag in which the characters never realize that the old radio only broadcasts a South African station (say what about a lion on the rampage?) and the best role I’ve ever seen gangly bit actor Norman Leavitt play, as an American Gothic-styled ne’er-do-well angling to claim the cash, with a crib sheet tucked into his hat, yet.

But in its efforts to set up and then embellish some sustained gags, “Dennis and the Radio Set” runs somewhat counter to the series’ format.  The prototypical Dennis episode would be one like “Henry and Togetherness,” in which the towheaded twerp manages to destroy, among other things, a cookie jar, an aquarium, and Mr. Wilson’s new hat.  Mr. Wilson, meanwhile, runs a con on Dennis’s father, manipulating him into giving up a golf game in order to spend more time with Dennis, on the dubious logic that this will keep the little brat out of his own hair.

(Mr. Wilson often behaves according to that heightened dream-logic of sitcoms, in which people do things that make absolutely no sense in order that we may have a plot each week.  See also, for instance, Jeannie’s psychotic fixation on “helping” Major Nelson, despite his constant pleas that she mind her own fucking business; Darrin Stephens’s monomaniacally self-defeating anti-feminism; and practically all the behavior of the castaways on Gilligan’s Island.  I’m still working out my Lost-like theory that Gilligan’s isle was actually a top-secret asylum for the dangerously insane, and that everyone on the Minnow was a multiple murderer, heavily drugged and circumvented in escape by unseen government agents.)

Loose in its structure, slack in its pacing, “Henry and Togetherness” is content to assemble a modest catalog of routine childhood antics and banal adult reactions around only a smidgen of plot.  It is inoffensive in its mediocrity, and actually superior to episodes that contrive more elaborate or far-fetched conflicts between Dennis and Mr. Wilson, like “Dennis the Campaign Manager” (Dennis inspires Mr. Wilson’s bid for parks commissioner) or “Dennis and the Miracle Plant Food” (more or less self-explanatory).  But is that ambition enough to justify one hundred and forty-six half-hours?

There are other “classic” shows that have, arguably, gotten by with this approach; if you enjoyed The Cosby Show, it was because you liked spending time with Bill Cosby and his appealing faux-family, not because any of them were killing themselves trying to make you laugh.  But the cast of Dennis is too cut-rate to coast on slight material.  Radio actor Joseph Kearns plays Mr. Wilson with a catalog of overdone, old-womanish gestures and expressions.  He’s the right type but he isn’t much fun; Dennis needed a sharp, operatically hatable antagonist, like The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Richard Deacon or The Lucy Show’s Gale Gordon (who, in fact, replaced Kearns on Dennis after he died suddenly toward the end of the third season).  Herbert Anderson, playing Dennis’s father, is a nebbish with a tremulous voice, a slight build, and no chin.  In contrast to windbaggy sitcom dads like Robert Young, Hugh Beaumont, or Carl Betz, Anderson is a non-entity, displaced entirely by the monster-grandpa figure of Mr. Wilson.  A father figure of such extreme weakness, positioned within the standard nuclear-family dynamic is an intriguing source of unease.  But I have yet to come across a Dennis episode that mines Anderson’s odd passivity for either humor or pathos.

And as for Jay North, a Village of the Damned escapee with a spooky death-rictus grin, he bellows his dialogue with a presentational delivery, as if he’d been trained to expect a Tootsie Roll for every successfully completed punchline.  On one level it’s hard to argue with his casting, because Dennis is supposed to be annoying and North certainly fits that bill.  I kept wishing, though, that Dennis could have been Stephen Talbot, who played the similarly unctuous character of Gilbert on Leave It to Beaver in a more likable and realistic manner.  Indeed, Beaver’s rich supporting cast contrasts sharply with the lack of background color in Dennis the Menace; all of Dennis’s friends and most of the other adults (including Gloria Henry as his mother) are forgettable.  Not only did Beaver have an indelible secondary cast, but it deployed them shrewdly, to extend its tonal richness.  If Wally and the Beav were flawed but also likable and recognizably human, then their assortment of friends were either venal (Eddie Haskell, Gilbert Bates) or stupid (Lumpy Rutherford, Larry Mondello), a collective suburban id that had no place in a plainer, sunshinier show like Dennis the Menace.

Earlier I wrote that Dennis the Menace had no subtext, but that’s not quite true.   Out of the myriad ways in which a little boy might torment an elderly pensioner, nearly half of my random sampling of episodes zeroed in on incidents whereby Dennis caused, or threatened, a financial loss for Mr. Wilson.  This obsession with economics is expressed with numeric precision.  Every teleplay spells out the exact sums of money at stake.  Mr. Wilson’s worthless stock escalates in value to $500 just as Dennis throws it out with an old phone book (“The Stock Certificate”).  Mr. Wilson’s parcel of scrap land goes up in value from $2,000 to $5,000 after Dennis finds gold on it (“The Rock Collector”).  Mr. Wilson gets a hundred dollar bill in the mail, only to see it snatched away by a crow (“Woodman, Spare That Tree”).  And so on.  The amount of money in that radio set was $1600, and in conversations with each of two potential claimants, the exact figure of a reward is haggled over.  So much uncouth discussion of dollars and cents called up, in contrast, one of my indelible childhood memories of Leave It to Beaver, in which the Beav asked his dad if they were rich and Ward replied only that the Cleavers were “comfortable.”  (I think that line may have triggered my earliest conception of the middle class, and the awareness that I numbered among it.)

On other occasions I have praised shows (like The Wire) that emphasize money, because frank depictions of economic hardship rarely emerge from Hollywood.  But when Dennis the Menace does it, the show merely reflects George Wilson’s avarice; you can practically imagine the writers looking over his shoulder and smacking their lips in unison with Mr. Wilson as he grubs for some wad of cash.  It’s an unthinking validation of the capitalist trap: the anxiety surrounding financial loss is the most real thing in the world of Dennis the Menace.  Still, I’m not unsympathetic.  As I grow older and ever less “comfortable,” the thought of living on a fixed income moves further up on my list of fates worse than death, inching past even the threat of torment by unruly children.

Dirt in the Bathtub

June 30, 2010

“Sometimes you just gotta be a whore in this business.” – Ed Asner

When I first set up this blog (and the related website), I decided that it would be totally non-commercial.  No ads, no plugs, no Paypal “tip jar.”  I began writing in this space as a way of distributing ideas and research that I thought had value even though they had been turned down by commercial publishers.  I felt that if I was going to give it away for free, I should really give it away for free.  Of course, a blog about forty year-old TV shows are not exactly an advertiser’s bonanza, and the offers to monetize this space were few.  So it’s been easy to remain a purist.

The partial exception to that (and let this serve as past and future disclosure) has been the DVD screener.  On a few occasions, small distributors have asked to send me DVDs or books for review, and if the content interested me, I agreed.  At other times, I have contacted distributors, asked for screeners of specific DVDs, and received them.  For instance, last week’s article on “Three Plays by Tennessee Williams” was facilitated by a review copy from Criterion.

I’ve never seen this as a conflict of interest for a couple of reasons.  First, I’ve only asked for or accepted DVDs that I’ve genuinely wanted to write about.   (If Criterion hadn’t send me a copy of the “Three Plays” disc, I would’ve gotten around to Netflixing a copy and writing the same piece anyway.  But don’t tell them that.)

Second, I haven’t let the balance of content in this space be influenced by a desire for free stuff, even though, like most people, I do like to get free stuff.  That may seem an obvious policy to follow, but I can think of a lot of internet DVD reviewers who seem to be filing joyless book reports just to avoid plunking down forty bucks for a Blu-ray.  On this blog, I’ve always chosen what to write about based on my own whims rather than somebody else’s monthly release schedule.  It gets awfully dull when everyone on the internet is talking about the same thing at the same time.  (That, incidentally, is why I spiked a half-written piece on the Lost finale last month.  By the time I got done reading what all the other media writers I admire had to say about the subject, I was bored with it.)

I realize it’s naïve of me to engage in any hand-wringing at all over free screeners.  I’ve worked in or around enough “real” media outlets to know that most of the major entertainment programs, newspapers, magazines, websites, etc., receive an avalanche of unsolicited DVDs, and very often those go home with the receptionist or the janitor (or to the nearest record store) with the shrink-wrap still on.  It’s probably also naïve of me to feel guilty about the few screeners I accepted and never got around to writing about, but I do, and if you’re one of the people who sent me one of those, I really will get to it.  One of these days.

All of the above is intended as a prelude to an admission of defeat in a rather silly one-man battle with Shout Factory, a DVD company with which some of you may be familiar.  Shout Factory, along with CBS/Paramount and Timeless Media, is one of the few companies in the dwindling DVD market that is still releasing a high volume of vintage television programming.  Last year, I contacted Shout with a request for review copies of a few of their recent TV releases – Room 222 and Adam-12, I think.  There was no response.  I tried a second time.  No response.  Then I wrote directly to the president of the company.  Again, no response.

To be clear, I don’t feel entitled to freebies from anybody.  I wouldn’t argue with any publicist who took a quick look at this blog and found its potential for publicity too modest to justify the cost of sending out a review copy.  But I did feel that a polite inquiry merited at least a professional response along the lines of “Sorry, bub, but you ain’t exactly Entertainment Weekly.  Nice try, though.”  And after three, count ’em, three such polite inquiries did not generate a response in kind, I was annoyed enough to consider boycotting future Shout Factory product on this blog.  But that really would be unethical.  So I went ahead and wrote about The Bill Cosby Show (an older Shout release) when the urge struck me.  And sometime afterward, it occurred to me to send that piece to Shout,  just as a way of showing them what they were missing out on, as it were.

That e-mail also received no direct reply, but – lo and behold – it landed me on Shout Factory’s press release distribution list.  Would those e-mails about upcoming releases be followed by screeners?  Why, yes, a week or two later, the UPS man delivered an envelope from Shout, and I opened it to find . . . a copy of G.I. Joe: The Movie.  Not the recent live action movie, mind you, but the direct-to-video feature that was spun off the popular kids’ cartoon in the eighties.

G.I. Joe: The Movie was not one of the DVDs I requested, and not exactly  the kind of show where you’d think, hey, that guy behind the Classic TV History Blog would be really likely to jump all over this and write a glowing review.  Was Shout Factory just not getting it, or (indulge me in a bit of paranoia here) were they fucking with me?  Kissing off those pesky e-mails by sending me the stupidest release on their calendar this year?

If so, well played.  Except that a better choice might have been Small Wonder, the soul-crushingly vapid eighties sitcom about the robot kid.  Small Wonder would be a sure-fire finalist in any competition for the worst television series of all time and, let me tell you, that piece of shit was on TV every single afternoon when I was in middle school.  For years.  On every channel.  Wall-to-fucking-wall Small Wonder.  Just finding that DVD in the mailbox could’ve made me morose and nauseous for a day or two, and that’s without even putting it into the DVD player.  Small Wonder really would’ve stuck it to me good.

G.I. Joe, on the other hand, was a childhood favorite.  I loved me some G.I. Joe back in the eight-to-ten year-old day.  The toys, the comic books, and yes, the cartoon: I was the living-room Patton of G.I. Joe, circa 1986.  I mock the G.I. Joe movie not out of cultural snobbery towards cartoons created to sell toys but because, as every old-school Joe fan knows, the movie introduced a load of fantasy claptrap and other inanities that brought the animated Joe to an ignominious close.  No, if Shout had made the mistake of sending me the classic Season 1 of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (yes, it’s in their catalog too), the result might well have been a prolonged dip into Joe nostalgia.  Be thankful you were spared.

*

That bit of kvetching played out longer than I expected and probably just sounds sort of petty.  Sorry about that: we’ll get back to serious business here in a few days.  I do have a point, though, which is to explain how I had hoped to write at some length about Leave It to Beaver, but won’t be doing so.  As I mentioned in passing in this piece on The Donna Reed Show (also reviewed courtesy of its distributor, thank you very much), I think Beaver remains a funny, important show, one with a great deal of unacknowledged cynicism and self-awareness lurking underneath the surface of its sunny suburban nuclear-family universe.  But I haven’t seen much Beaver since I was twelve or thirteen (yes, that was a double entendre, and brace yourself for more), and I can’t afford the $179.99 (plus s&h) price tag for Shout’s new release of the complete Beaver series, so a closer analysis will have to wait.

In the meantime, I’ll direct you to Neil Genzlinger’s terrific piece on Leave It to Beaver in last Friday’s New York Times (which pays for its review copies, if I understand its rigid rules of objectivity accurately; but let’s wait and see who lasts longer in the modern mediaverse, the big paper or the li’l blog).  Genzlinger picks out a great example of Beaver’s sly, multi-layered humor, a scene in the first episode where the Beav and his older brother elaborately stage the scene of an untaken bath, all the way down to chucking some dirt in the tub to create a ring.  That it would take less effort to actually bathe is the punchline that wisely remains unspoken.  And then there’s the kicker, when Wally dismisses a more obvious transgression (reading a sealed teacher’s note) at the same time he’s pulling one over on his parents.  Nixonian logic in the Eisenhower era, and ample evidence for my theory that Wally was a situational ethicist of the highest order, a passive-aggressive malcontent who lurked in the shadow of a more transparent sleazebag (the infamous Eddie Haskell).  In the end, Wally got away with a more profound form of insolence.

Genzlinger did phone interviews with the four main kids from the show, and asks some good questions that get at the pranks, pratfalls, and embarrassments that made up the week-in, week-out existence of Wally and Eddie and Lumpy and Beav.  In Leave It to Beaver growing up was often sort of a placid nightmare, despite the calming influence of Ward and June.  I may be on shaky ground when I wonder if the famous episode that traps Beaver in a giant soup bowl inspired Fellini’s billboard sequence in Boccaccio 70, but how about this one: the Beav in a bunny suit (Jerry Mathers’s pick as the most humiliating episode) as the source of the scary giant bunny in the not un-Leave It to Beaver-ish Donnie Darko.

(“Beaver in a bunny suit.  The only thing that would be funnier is a bunny in a beaver suit,” is Lumpy’s typically meta take on the situation.)

The last thing about Leave It to Beaver is the urban legend.  Not the one about how Jerry Mathers was supposedly killed in Vietnam.  No, the one I’m fixated on is how Mrs. Cleaver supposedly uttered the line of dialogue, “Ward, you were awfully hard on the Beaver last night.”  Hyuk, hyuk, I know, but my stuck-in-the-sixth grade wit needs to know if that line, which could have been spoken in so many episodes of Leave It to Beaver, ever actually was spoken in one of them.  I was thinking I’d offer to give my review copy to any reader who could find it in an episode, or else a line close enough to it to be the source of that rumor.  Of course, I don’t have a review copy to give away, but if anyone does know the answer, please enlighten us in the comments anyway.  On the internet, everyone works for free.

After Allan Manings, a television comedy writer, died on May 12, the Los Angeles Times ran a medium-length obituary which offered an adequate summary of Manings’s career.   The obit foregrounded some warm quotes from his stepdaughter, the actress Meredith Baxter, which I suspect would not have received as much prominence had Baxter not made news recently by revealing her homosexuality.  What’s most interesting about Dennis McLellan’s piece in the Times, though, is what it left out.

Manings came to prominence late in life.  In his mid-forties, he won an Emmy as part of the original writing staff of Laugh-In.  In fact, according to an invaluable interview with Manings in Tom Stempel’s Storytellers to a Nation: A History of American Television Writing, Manings was the first writer sought out by Laugh-In’s creator, George Schlatter, to work on the show.  Manings served as a head writer on the popular sketch show for four seasons, and was thought of (in Schlatter’s words) as the “conscience of Laugh-In,” because he fought more aggressively than anyone else to include political material in the show’s gags.  When all ten of Laugh-In’s writers crowded on stage to accept their Emmy in 1968, it was Manings who quipped, “I’m sorry we couldn’t all be here tonight.”

After Laugh-In, Manings became a part of Norman Lear’s expansive sitcom factory of the seventies, helping to develop Good Times in 1974 and co-creating One Day at a Time the following year.  Manings wrote One Day at a Time with his wife, Whitney Blake (Baxter’s mother), and the pair derived the show’s original premise from Blake’s own experiences. 

The earliest of Manings’s credits cited in the Times obituary is Leave It to Beaver.  Manings wrote two episodes of Beaver during its final seasons, and didn’t particularly care for the show; he was already looking ahead to the more realistic humor of the Lear era.  (I had thought for a long time that Manings was the last surviving Leave It to Beaver writer, but I realize now that that distinction probably belongs to Wilton Schiller, a writer better known for his work on dramatic series like The Fugitive and Mannix.)

Leave It to Beaver was also Manings’s comeback from the blacklist, and that’s the conspicuous omission from the Los Angeles Times obit.  Manings had gotten started in television writing a “few sketches” (Stempel) for Your Show of Shows and then joined the staff of one of its successors, The Imogene Coca Show, along with his then-writing partner, Robert Van Scoyk.  After a year or two, Manings’s agent tipped him off that he’d become a political sacrifice, and Manings took refuge in a novel place: Canada.  (Although many blacklistees went to England, Mexico, France, or Spain in search of work, I can’t think any others of note who spent their lean years in Canada.)  Manings may have found some work in live television there, but after a time he ended up working on a forty-acre horse farm.  Manings sold manure to other local farmers and realized, as he related to Tom Stempel, that Hollywood would pay more for horse shit.  As soon as the blacklist began to thaw, Manings moved to Los Angeles.

(A footnote: In his interview with Stempel, Manings identified Beaver as the show that ended his exile, although Manings’s papers reveal that Ichabod and Me, a dud sitcom created by Beaver producers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, was probably his first post-blacklist credit, in 1961.)

Manings’s blacklisting is no secret, and I’m certainly not implying that some rightist conspiracy has suppressed the facts.  Still, it’s curious that the Times steered so carefully around that portion of Manings’s biography.  It seems doubtful that McLellan simply didn’t know about it, since his obit references Manings’s political activism more than once.  There’s a quote from Lear about Manings’s commitment as a voter and a citizen, and Baxter describes him as “a very outspoken liberal.”  Perhaps it’s just that the blacklist is old news these days, first to be sacrificed for length ahead of soft quotes from celebrities.

Ironically, in Stempel’s book, Manings chose to clam up about the blacklist, too.  His only direct quote on the matter is: “I fronted for some, others fronted for me.”  I’d always hoped for, but never got, a chance to press Manings further on the subject. 

Last December, in this interview, Meredith Baxter discussed the reactions of some of her family members after she decided to come out of the closet.  She mentioned her stepfather, although only by his first name, so I doubt that anyone realized (or cared) that she was talking about Allan Manings.  But through her, Manings got in a marvelous last word. 

“I went to Allan and I said, ‘I’m dating women,’” Baxter related.  “And he said, ‘Hmm.  So am I.’  And that was that.” 

 *

As long as this entry is getting filed under the Corrections Department, we may as well turn our attention to one David E. Durston, who also died this month.  Durston is remembered mainly as the auteur behind the low-budget cult horror film I Drink Your Blood.  I’ve never seen the movie, and I know little about Durston.  Judging by his resume, as enumerated in this perhaps lengthier-than-deserved Hollywood Reporter obit, Durston seems to have been one of those figures who hovered on the fringes of the movie industry for decades, carving out a marginal career with an energy that surpassed his talent.

Picking on the recently deceased is a joyless exercise, but in the interest of the historical record, I have to call foul on this claim, quoted from the Hollywood Reporter but repeated in substance by many other sources: “Durston wrote for such ground-breaking TV shows as Playhouse 90, Rheingold Playhouse, Tales of Tomorrow – one of the earliest science fiction anthology shows – Kraft Theatre, and Danger.” 

Resume padding is common in the entertainment industry (and everywhere else), and in the pre-internet days you could get away with it for a long time.  When I interviewed one prominent writer-producer of the sixties and seventies, I asked him about the Philco Television Playhouse, which had turned up on some lists of his credits.  Somewhat embarrassed, the man admitted that he had never written for Philco.  When he was young and struggling, Philco (the anthology on which Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” debuted) was the most prestigious credit a television writer could have, so he simply added it to his resume.  In his case, the chutzpah paid off.  I think Durston may have tried the same thing.

A writer named Stephen Thrower, who interviewed Durston at length, has compiled the most detailed list of Durston’s credits that I can find.  Note how it remains vague about the big dramatic anthologies – Danger, Studio One, Kraft Television Theatre, Playhouse 90.  No dates, no episode titles.

Let’s start with the easy ones.  Thrower’s resume for Durston lists four teleplays for Tales of Tomorrow, and three of those are confirmed in Alan Morton’s The Complete Directory to Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Television Series (Other Worlds, 1997).  A fourth, “The Evil Within,” is credited on-screen to another writer, Manya Starr.  Then there’s the Rheingold Playhouse – or, actually, there isn’t, because there was no Rheingold Playhouse.  Durston may have meant this production, “A Hit Is Made,” which seems to have been a one-time live broadcast, sponsored by Rheingold Beer and telecast from Chicago in 1951.  A few years later, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., hosted a dramatic anthology called the Rheingold Theatre, and by christening the earlier show the “Rheingold Playhouse” Durston could have hoped to confuse it with the more impressive Fairbanks series.

It’s very difficult to verify credits from Danger or the Kraft Television Theatre.  Many of the segments are lost.  Often the credits would be dropped if an episode ran long, or the reviewers for the trades or the newspapers simply wouldn’t catch them as they watched the show live.  But the records for Studio One are closer to complete, and I’m convinced that I have seen an accurate list of writing credits for the entire run of Playhouse 90.  David Durston’s name is not among them.  Moreover, Playhouse 90 was a Rolls Royce of a show, very self-conscious about its prestige.  With rare exceptions, only established “name” writers were invited to contribute to Playhouse 90, and Durston would not have fit that description.

Of course, it is possible that Durston contributed to one of these shows without credit – but all of them?  I could go on: this book offers a Durston bio with still more credits that look bogus, including, of all things, Hart to Hart, whose writers have been well-documented and do not seem to include Durston.  But you get the idea.  Entertainment news does not, and never has, received the same scrutiny by editors and fact checkers as “real” news.  Much of the information that gets accepted as fact is just plain wrong.

(And if anyone out there can provide any solid facts about the David Durston credits I’ve disputed, by all means post them below.)

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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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