By the time I managed to locate Bert Leonard, all that was left of him fit into a small unit in a self-storage facility in Los Angeles that was hemmed in by concertina wire and a row of spindly palm trees.

– Susan Orlean

All that was left of him was not a storage unit.  That wasn’t all that was left of his life.  He had all of his children around him, and he got to understand that he was leaving us behind.  He didn’t die alone.

– Gina Leonard

1. I Wouldn’t Start From Here

It started with a question: who owns Route 66 and Naked City?  I thought finding the answer would be simple.  It wasn’t.

The question comes up because, last month, Shout Factory released all four seasons of Route 66, the Herbert B. Leonard-produced, Stirling Silliphant-created, filmed-all-over-the-United States, one hundred and sixteen-hour road movie that stands as one of the unique events in American television history.  That made Route 66 the first of Leonard’s television series to be completed on home video.

That’s complete with an asterisk, though, because one episode in the set (“A Fury Slinging Flame,” a significant anti-nuke treatise) is definitely missing about five minutes of footage, another episode (“Blue Murder”) is probably missing a few minutes, and all of the first fifteen episodes are derived from some badly mauled sixteen-millimeter prints that should never have passed a professional QC.  The reasons for these mastering failures remain murky (“murky” is a concept that we’ll be returning to often in this piece).  Route 66’s DVD history was a bumpy road, a trial-and-error process that fixed some mistakes and let others stand (I covered this in its early stages here), an unfinished mess that Shout Factory inherited from other companies (Roxbury Entertainment, producer, and Infinity Entertainment, distributor) without much of a track record in the TV-on-DVD business.

Personally, I’m in the half-full camp on this: seven-eighths of the episodes are in better than adequate shape, and I can finally throw out my VHS tapes of the last season.  (Plus, they sent me a freebie.)  But Brian Ward, the producer of the new Route 66 set, implied months ago in a forum post that the new box set of Route 66 would fix the video problems that afflicted the earlier releases.  Ward has an internet history of “truthiness,” of drumming up fans’ enthusiasm when Shout is getting something right and then bailing any time the chips are down, and when you reread what he wrote, it doesn’t make any concrete promises.  So technically Ward is off the hook.  But many of the small but vocal crowd who actually read these things felt duped, and launched a “cancel your pre-orders” campaign; as of this writing, about two-thirds of the Amazon reviews of the set focus exclusively on the image quality issues, or on the obnoxious fact that Shout has not disclosed whether it will release Season 4 (the only one new to DVD) separately.

I always suspect that these don’t-buy-it-movements are like the southern boycott of Bonanza (because of its stars’ pro-civil rights stance) in the sixties: complain in public but watch it with the shades pulled down.  It’s not as if fans have a better way of seeing the botched first season episodes – except, actually, they do.  Route 66 ran on Nick at Nite in the late eighties, from new video masters that were (for their time) gorgeous; copies of those circulate among fans, and they look vastly better than the copies of the first fifteen used in this DVD box.

Why couldn’t, or wouldn’t, Shout Factory (or its predecessors) access those tapes?  That’s what I wanted to find out.  I also wanted to know why the DVD releases of Route 66’s sister show, Naked City, sputtered out in 2006, with 78 of the 138 episodes still unreleased.

A lot of people (including, long ago, myself) have assumed that Sony owns both shows.  There’s a logic to that inference – Sony is the corporate successor to Screen Gems, which originally partnered with Herbert Leonard’s production company to produce the shows and then distributed them in syndication; and Sony’s logo appears on the back of the Naked City DVDs – but it’s wrong.  The real story is much more complicated.

2. Torment Him Much and Hold Him Long

Herbert B. Leonard got seven shows on the air between 1954 and 1960.  The first, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, was a big hit, and it gave the brash Leonard enough leeway to produce whatever he wanted, even though the executives at Screen Gems – who were theoretically his bosses – hated him from the outset.  Rin Tin Tin made Leonard a rich man, a comer not only in the television industry but also someone who could be taken seriously as a movie producer, too.

But Leonard spent his last decade without a home of his own, dependent upon the financial support of family and friends.  He got throat cancer, lost his larynx and his voice in 2003, and died in 2006.  It was a long, sad story that started when Naked City and Route 66 were canceled in 1963 and 1964.  Leonard had no shows on the air, no guaranteed income, and all the executives he’d defied and taunted in interviews had their knives out for him.  He pitched many pilots, some of them arty endeavors as Route 66 and Naked City had been, others kitsch like 1967’s The Perils of Pauline.  None became series.  He had a modest hit with Popi, a film he produced in 1969 for United Artists; he made a few bucks on a sepia-tinted, recut version of Rin Tin Tin (Rin Tint Tint?) that he syndicated in the seventies; he got a couple of short-lived sitcoms on the air in the eighties.  But most of the second half of Leonard’s life was wasted creatively, a waste that is quite measurable for anyone who has had the rare opportunity to see the single film that Leonard directed.

Going Home (1971), a forgotten almost-masterpiece, was a father-son drama that Robert Mitchum agreed to make for scale, and that reunited a lot of Leonard’s Naked City and Route 66 collaborators – writer Larry Marcus, cameraman Fred Jackman, casting director Marion Dougherty, stunt coordinator Max Kleven.  Leonard talked about getting Haskell Wexler (a hot property after Medium Cool) to direct, then decided to do it himself; he struggled at first, but Mitchum backed him, helped him learn the new craft.  Problem was, Leonard made the film at MGM, whose president at that time was James T. Aubrey.   Aubrey liked to carve up movies in the editing room; Robert Altman, Blake Edwards, Jack Smight, and Bruce Geller, among others, all told the press that Aubrey trashed films they made for MGM during the early seventies.  Aubrey was also Bert Leonard’s old nemesis, the head of CBS during the Route 66 years, and when he chopped thirty minutes out of Going Home, and then barely released it, it may have been just out of spite.  What remains of the film is the creative bright spot in a forty-year twilight.  But after MGM dumped it, Leonard’s promising directing career was over.

Herbert B. Leonard in 1987 (at a Museum of Broadcasting event, a recording of which is an essential extra on Shout Factory’s Route 66 box set)

Bert Leonard could not live modestly.  He was, after all, a cigar-chomping mogul of the Hollywood variety.  He gambled, he womanized, he borrowed money to finance unmade films and drawn-out lawsuits.  There were four wives and six daughters.  The last of the wives, Betty Kennedy, was an ingenue in Ladies’ Man, a Leonard-produced workplace sitcom that ran for a season in 1980-81.  “That was a real heartbreaker for Bert,” one of his friends told me.  Betty was thirty-some years younger than Leonard, and it was a volatile, on-again, off-again relationship; no one would go on the record about the specifics (and I could not reach Kennedy, now living in Reno, for comment), but I suspect that Leonard’s quasi-biographer, Susan Orlean, is being deliberately coy when she writes that Leonard “later described his relation to her as an addiction.”

Until the end, Leonard kept trying to get properties he owned made or remade.  He became obsessed with River of Gold, a big-budget feature Rin Tin Tin story that Disney optioned briefly.  There were still people who wanted to work with Leonard, but he refused to compromise on any professional point in which he believed strongly, no matter what the consequences; he drove away potential collaborators and backers, even the ones who liked him personally.  Stanley Moger, who fronted those tinted Rin Tin Tin intros to the tune of $800,000 and pulled the plug when Leonard ran over budget, called it a “habit for self-destructing.”

Leonard’s friends supported him.  The director Irvin Kershner, a friend who was involved with River of Gold, loaned him $100,000 in living expenses.  The stuntman Max Kleven (he was Paul Burke’s double on Naked City) gave him $350,000 over the years, and put Leonard up at his ranch for a while.  James P. Tierney, who was Leonard’s lawyer for a while (put another asterisk on that; we’ll come back to it), fronted him “ten to twenty thousand a month for three or four years.”

Eventually, Leonard’s only assets were his TV shows.  He’d been shrewd enough to retain the copyrights – certainly not a given during the early days of television – but he couldn’t hold on to them.

3. Like This, It Means Father … Like This, Bitter … Like This, Tiger

On the website of the U.S. Copyright Office, you can pull up records documenting the path by which Naked City, Route 66, and the other Leonard shows changed hands over the last fifteen years.  They are plentiful and complex.  I showed them to an intellectual property lawyer, who told me that to truly untangle the mess, you’d have to go down to D.C. and sift through the complete documents.

Most of those records point to, and were likely filed by, James Tierney, the attorney (with an asterisk) who represented some of Bert Leonard’s affairs toward the end.  According to Tierney, Leonard used the shows to settle his debts with Tierney, which eventually totaled $1.5 million.

“It’s a long story,” Tierney explained last month.  “He owned me money, and we came to an amicable accomodation about settling with me.  I always liked the show” – meaning Naked City, but including most or all of the others –  “and he wanted to sell it, and I bought it from him.”

Tierney was guarded when we first spoke, maybe because he didn’t know whether I knew about the paintings (and in fact I didn’t, yet).  The paintings were a Monet and a Picasso, among others, and according to Susan Orlean, Tierney conspired in 1992 to steal them from a client as part of an insurance scam.  He did time, and lost his law license.  (Tierney disputes this version of events, but refused to go into detail and quickly ended our conversation after I brought up Orlean’s book.  The California State Bar confirms that Tierney tendered his resignation with charges pending in 1999.)

You can understand how those allegations might color one’s assessment of a source, and yet Tierney sounded genuine in his affection for Leonard.  “He worked until the end,” Tierney said.  “He was always working on ideas.  He was an optimist.  He always thought that the next deal was right around the corner.”  Tierney also thought – and this is the only way that Bert Leonard could have hung in so long, and borrowed so much dough from so many people – that Leonard was “a charming, talented guy, just a real nice guy.”

4. How Much a Pound Is Albatross

Tierney may have liked the shows, but like his old friend he parceled them off over the subsequent years.  Route 66 went to Financo, a Dutch investment company, which sold it to Kirk Hallam, the would-be producer who wanted to remake the series as a feature film.  After the original DVD releases petered out, Hallam struck a deal with Shout Factory that gave the home video label “worldwide home entertainment and digital rights, and North American broadcast rights.”  (Route 66, Naked City, and Rin Tin Tin have all been in the lineups of these new nostalgia-oriented cable channels that have cropped up – MeTV, Antenna TV, I can’t keep track – so syndication is, after a long dry spell, once again a revenue source.)

As far as I can tell, Sony still controls two of Leonard’s less well-known shows, Rescue 8 (L.A. firefighters) and Tallahassee 7000 (Walter Matthau as a Florida lawman); Leonard signed the rights over to Columbia Pictures Television in the late eighties.  I’ve never seen them but I’ve heard that both series have some of the same on-location verisimilitude as Route 66 and Naked City.  (There’s also a rumor that they were stymied in syndication because some of the prints could not be found.)  Financo appears to be stuck with Circus Boy, the one with the kid Micky Dolenz and the elephant (anybody want to take that off their hands?).  And The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin . . . well, that one is too complicated to even get into here.

Naked City was the one show that Tierney held on to.  At the time Tierney took over the copyright, Sony – then the show’s distributor, evidently subject to an earlier deal made by Leonard – was already releasing the series on DVD through Image Entertainment.  “Then Sony sold their rights to me,” Tierney says, “and I didn’t renew the agreement.”  Tierney claims that the Naked City DVDs were profitable – that even though Image spent “thousands of dollars” creating the gorgeous new video masters, the DVDs took in $600,000 of gross revenue and made an 80% profit.  Tierney ended the relationship with Image over a financial dispute, and because (like me) he was annoyed that Image cherry-picked the episodes with the most famous guest stars and refused to switch to a season-by-season release pattern.

But there’s a lede that I’ve buried here: In April of this year, Tierney sold Naked City to Image Entertainment, following the “amicable” resolution of a lawsuit he filed against the DVD distributor in 2011.  Although Tierney retains remake and sequel rights, Image “effectively owns the original programming,” in Tierney’s words, including all home video and digital rights.

But don’t get excited yet.  Last week, a rep for Image told me that the company (which was recently purchased by Robert L. Johnson, the founder of BET) has no immediate plans to release the series on disc.  That’s a real shame.  Although Image is not a major player in the classic TV realm, it has licensed a few key properties and turned them in to elaborately-produced, well-reviewed disc releases.  The mind reels at the possibility of a complete Naked City box set, with audio commentaries and other extras, similar to the Thriller set Image released in 2010.  Or, better yet, a series of season-by-season Blu-rays, along the lines of Image’s most recent Twilight Zone upgrades.

5. The Man Who Bit a Diamond in Half

There are still things about the above that I don’t fully understand.  One is the extent of Sony’s interest in Naked City and Route 66.  Did Leonard always own the copyright to his shows outright, or did Screen Gems keep a piece of them?  Susan Orlean writes that, by the eighties, Leonard owed Sony “a fortune” – but for what, exactly?  Last year Sony’s Vice President of Media Production told me that “both of those titles expired several years ago from the Sony Pictures Television copyright and have moved on to new copyright holders” (emphasis added).

Then there’s the question of Max Kleven.  According to Susan Orlean, the former stuntman gained certain rights to Rin Tin Tin in a court-ordered settlement against Leonard, who couldn’t pay off his debts to Kleven any other way.  But Kleven told me that he owns more.  “All that stuff has been to court twice, and as far as the court is concerned I own control of Rin Tin Tin, Route 66, and the Bert Leonard portion of Naked City,” Kleven said in May.  Indeed, the Copyright Office has a 2005 purchase and assignment agreement in the name of TRG Management, LLC & Max Kleven that lists not only Rin Tin Tin but also all the Route 66 and Naked City episodes.  James Tierney  points out that his own foreclosure on Naked City and Route 66, in 2000, predated any of Kleven’s claims against Leonard, and that the attorneys for Financo and Image checked the titles on the shows before closing the deals with him.  Kleven describes Tierney as a friend and a legal advisor.  Tierney politely disputes Kleven’s claims to ownership of any of the shows.

Did Bert Leonard give away the same shows twice?

6. Suppose I Said I Was the Queen of Spain

Finally, there’s the question of the film and video elements.  Did Bert Leonard keep any of them?  A copyright isn’t much good if it doesn’t come with a usable copy of what’s copyrighted.  In that storage shed, Susan Orlean found prints and tapes of Rin Tin Tin and some of Leonard’s other shows.  But Leonard’s daughter Gina, who was caring for her father when he died and ended up with the keys to the shed, says that no one has sourced any film or video elements from his estate.  Tierney told me that, for Naked City, Sony “was holding” all the elements, and “now they’re turning them over” – to Image, presumably.

But what about Route 66?  The question of elements was central to the bungled early DVDs of that show.  The first round derived from ragged sixteen-millimeters.  After the resulting outcry, the subsequent Infinity/Roxbury releases appeared to source thirty-five millimeter elements, albeit with aspect ratio and audio flaws that suggested the mastering was being done inexpertly.  Where did these transfers come from?  Kirk Hallam addressed the issue in an interview in which he stated that, following the inferior original release (some of which was sourced from “videotape”), the “fine-grain masters” were rounded up from “vaults all up and down the East Coast.”  (Whose vaults?)  The “original film stock” for the episodes resided in a Sony vault in Burbank, but “the archivists begged me not to use that original film.”

As I’ve written before, aspects of that explanation strike me as obfuscatory (or perhaps just vague about what the technical terms actually mean).  My own guess – and this is pure speculation, and I invite anyone with knowledge of the situation to set the record straight – has always been as follows: that Hallam acquired the copyright of Route 66 but no usable film elements; that Sony sought more than Roxbury or Infinity wanted to pay for access to either film prints or the old video masters that ran on Nick at Nite; that Roxbury used either collectors’ prints or some other unknown, second-rate source to create the first Route 66 DVD release; and that for the subsequent volumes Roxbury capitulated and forked over the money to use Sony’s elements.

The big question is why Shout Factory opted not to redo the first fifteen episodes.  Was it merely a matter of dollars and cents, or was there another reason why better elements were unavailable?  I can understand how new transfers of fifteen hours of film could bust the budget, but what about those Nick at Nite tapes, which were inarguably better than the existing DVDs?  Were they tossed, or was Shout too cheap even to pay for access to them?

(Last week Shout Factory’s PR rep stopped responding to my requests for an interview with the producer of the Route 66 DVDs after I declined to submit questions in advance.)

7. The One Marked Hot Gives Cold

I never would’ve guessed that I’d get scooped digging around amid the depressing late-career business dealings of a down-and-out television producer.  But that’s essentially what happened last year when Susan Orlean – yes, the New Yorker essayist who was portrayed in the film Adaptation by Meryl Streep – published a book called Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.  Orlean was a big Rinty fan as a kid, and turned the unlikely subject into a book about the line of movie dogs, and their eccentric owners and trainers.  Inevitably, when she came to Rinty’s TV years, Bert Leonard became a central protagonist in Orlean’s book; his epic rise and fall, his excesses and con-man’s charm, were irresistible.

But Orlean’s book also has a bit of a truthiness problem.  Leonard Maltin has compiled a long list of its rudimentary errors in the area of film history.  There are mistakes regarding Herbert Leonard, too.  For instance, Leonard had two daughters with each of his last three wives; Orlean credits four to his third wife and two to Betty Kennedy, the last (and technically Leonard’s fourth and fifth wife, since they divorced, remarried, and divorced again).  That might sound trivial, except that Orlean suggests that Leonard’s second marriage, to Willetta Leonard (who is credited as a producer on Route 66 and Naked City), ended due to the death of his only son, Steven, in a swimming pool accident in 1955.  The fact that, in reality, Bert and Willetta went on to produce two more children before splitting up confounds that bit of convenient psychology.  Reading Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, I got the queasy sense that Orlean was arranging the facts to fit a narrative, instead of the other way around, and that her narrative required Bert Leonard to end up as pathetic and unfulfilled as possible.  Gina Leonard, one of Bert’s daughters, insists that Orlean has exaggerated the extent of Leonard’s destitution and unhappiness during his final years.  She told me last week that her siblings, mother, and other family members – many of whom had cooperated with and encouraged Orlean’s book – are united in their belief that it does not do justice to Herbert Leonard.

(I should add that while I have used Orlean’s research as a guide for parts of this piece, I have made extensive efforts to fact-check everything sourced from her book with the parties involved – most of whom were clearly reluctant to revisit the topic.)

8. A Horse Has a Big Head - Let Him Worry!

I first saw Route 66 when I was in college.  One of my instructors, Katie Mills, was doing a dissertation on road movies and slung me tapes of a dozen or so episodes.  I confess: I didn’t get it.  The videotapes were so murky that I couldn’t appreciate the vintage location footage, and so I responded more to the flaws.  The guest stars were good, but the lead actors were either stiff or goofy (this was a problem with Naked City, too).  And why were there so many fistfights?

Well, now I know better.  Now I’m convinced, in fact, that Route 66 and Naked City may be the most important American television project of the sixties.  Maybe not the all-time, word-for-word, best television shows of that era, but definitely the ones I come back to most often when I want to know what people felt then, and how their lives actually looked.

The significance of the Bert Leonard-Stirling Silliphant shows makes the state of preservation and research on them all the more alarming.  The elements themselves are in uncertain hands.  (Who has the negatives?  I can only hope they’re stored safely in Sony’s vaults.)  James Rosin has published mostly unsatisfactory books on each, and I know of at least one writer each who has abandoned a book project on Route 66 and Naked City.  I’ve written around the shows myself – Naked City bit players; Route 66 locations – and I’ve skimmed Leonard’s and Silliphant’s papers at UCLA, but I haven’t done anything in depth.  Sam Manners, the production manager on both shows (how did he manage that?!) and probably the last prominent crew member from either, died while I was researching this piece, and before I could interview him.

Route 66 ended on a weak note, a stillborn, two-part farce.  (Silliphant, like Rod Serling, was not much of a comedy writer.)  But there’s a satisfying final scene: Buz (Martin Milner) and Linc (Glenn Corbett) go their separate ways, the former settling down to marriage, the latter ostensibly headed “home” but, perhaps, continuing to wander alone. I like to think he’s still driving around out there someplace.  The title of the episode is

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

Correction (6/13/12): The original version of this piece described the plot of Route 66‘s final episode inaccurately.  Update (5/6/13): Since I published this, Shout Factory has issued a separate release of Route 66‘s fourth season, and Madacy (a subsidiary of Image Entertainment) has released two volumes of Naked City DVDs.  Most of the episodes are recycled from the earlier sets, but there are ten new-to-home video episodes.

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.

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