Sixty-Nine

April 19, 2010

Last month I bought a copy of the first season of The Bill Cosby Show for six dollars in a remaindered DVD store on Sixth Avenue.  That probably goes some way towards explaining why it’s taken Shout Factory, which distributes The Bill Cosby Show, four years to get around to releasing the second and final season, and only as a direct-mail exclusive.

If you’re confused about how anything Cosbyfied could lapse into obscurity or unprofitability, you should note that I’m talking about The Bill Cosby Show (1969-1971), not The Cosby Show (1984-1992).  The latter is the mega-popular, audience-friendly family sitcom that kept NBC in business during the eighties.  The former is the black sheep of the Cosby canon, a forgotten but far superior series in which the comedian took chances, engaged with the realities of the immediate post-Civil Rights era, and apparently annoyed the network (also NBC) enough to trigger a premature cancellation.  The first name makes all the difference.  Original recipe Cos is the one you want.

Backed by triple Emmy wins for his work on I Spy, Cosby executive-produced The Bill Cosby Show himself, independently.  It doesn’t look or feel like any other situation comedy from the time.  There’s no laugh track, no ensemble of colorful sidekicks mugging for attention.  A lot of the action in The Bill Cosby Show takes place outdoors (and off the backlot).  Many of the directors (Harvey Hart, Ralph Senensky, Seymour Robbie) had more experience working with dramatic material than with comedy, and the writers took care to depict Cosby’s character as a rounded, multi-faceted individual, an organic part of a well-defined environment.  It would be an overstatement to call The Bill Cosby Show a “dramedy.”  But it takes place in the real world, not in sitcomland.

The other aspect of The Bill Cosby Show that distinguishes it from most television comedies is that it has no set formula.  It goes in all different directions.  Each episode is very different from the others in its plot, setting, and even the style of humor.  Cosby plays Chet Kincaid, who in press materials about the show is usually identified as a high school gym coach.  That’s accurate, but incomplete, because this is not a workplace comedy.  Chet is, first and foremost, a black man in Los Angeles.

In the first episode, “The Fatal Phone Call,” Chet stumbles into a series of increasingly serious misadventures while out for a morning jog.  That activity is the only clue to his profession, which the series explores at its leisure.  Later episodes build out the character of Chet, gradually introducing members of a large family (siblings, sister-in-law, niece & nephews, parents), various girlfriends, colleagues from work.  Chet’s life at school dominates more episodes than any other subject, but many segments deal exclusively with his family relations, his sex life, or simply the scrapes that an average citizen gets into while going about his daily life.

My favorite episodes of The Bill Cosby Show fall into that last category, because they are the most unpredictable.   Unencumbered by all the usual sitcom fallbacks, Cosby and his head writer, Ed. Weinberger, could craft scenarios out of any whim that struck them.  “Rules Is Rules,” one of the funniest farces I’ve ever seen on television, pits Chet against an implacable public school bureaucracy in his quest to purchase a single valve that he needs to re-inflate his supply of basketballs.  “A Word From Our Sponsor” sees Chet accept a role as a cereal pitchman – because, he makes clear, he needs the money.  Rather than follow standard sitcom rules, the writer, Marvin Kaplan, offers a series of formless set pieces, climaxing with a howler of a TV commercial shoot in which the hapless Chet is soundly defeated by a precocious child actor and a misbehaving box of Corn Wispies.  The episode falters only because Cosby seems to have improvised at length, and his timing was altered when these sequences were trimmed to fit the half-hour frame.  It’s hard to imagine an episode of That Girl having that problem. 

A comparison to Seinfeld may be too easy, but the best of The Bill Cosby Shows are, indeed, about nothing.  This appealing minimalism reached its apex with Henry Fonda’s guest appearance in “The Elevator Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.”  Instead of giving the movie legend a meaty star turn, Stan Daniels’s teleplay casts him as a meek English teacher who gets trapped in an elevator with Chet.  The pair pass the time with word games and breath-holding contests.  Fonda does get to deliver a touching monologue near the end, but for most of the show he seems liberated by the chance to riff with Cosby in a series of long-take two-shots.


Bill Cosby, Ray Charles, Henry Fonda, and an elevator

Cosby seems to have insisted on that setup as much as possible.  In “Home Remedy” there’s an amazing four-and-a-half-minute improvisation between Cosby and Lee Weaver (a semi-regular, as Chet’s married brother), in which they reminisce about faking illnesses to score sick days when they were children.  Long takes suit Cosby because he really gets going when he has strong, adult performers off of whom he can play.  (Cosby is less entertaining when he’s playing with children, or doing solo schtick.  The comedian foregrounded those elements in his second eponymous series, which was likable but not nearly as funny as the first one.)

Even more than Fonda, small-part actors who were often stuck playing exaggerated comic types in other shows came alive in the company of Cosby.  Kathleen Freeman must have drawn on her own experience as an acting coach in “A Word From Her Sponsor,” in which she plays a drama teacher who puts a hopeless Chet through a series of detailed and authentic-sounding acting exercises.  In “Let X Equal a Lousy Weekend,” Chet subs as an algebra teacher and gets stuck on a tough word problem involving amounts of candy.  Enter Bill Zuckert to deliver a hilarious aria as a candy shop owner who decides that Chet is crazy when he requests a hike in prices so they’ll match his math problem exactly.

And Fran Ryan, never one of my favorite character players, is a revelation as the stern school administrator in “Rules Is Rules.”  She’s playing her usual battle axe type, but it occurred to someone that Ryan’s Mrs. Beal should respond to the charm that Cosby aims at her.  With a hint of a smile, Ryan betrays a secret pleasure as Chet outwits the inane red tape that Mrs. Beal is charged with enforcing.  A cliched situation turns complex, warm, and real through the byplay between the two performers.

My favorite of Cosby’s sparring partners is Joyce Bulifant, the perky blonde who later appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as Murray’s wife.  Bulifant plays a hip guidance counselor, Marsha Paterson, who has a lively, sexy chemistry with Chet.  But she disappears after a few episodes.  That a romance between Chet and Mrs. Paterson (carefully identified as a married woman in the scripts) remained off-limits brings us around to the issue of race, which lies palpably under the surface of The Bill Cosby Show.


Joyce Bulifant as Mrs. Paterson

Supposedly Cosby and Robert Culp, his co-star in I Spy, agreed that the camaraderie between their characters on that series “was the statement.”  Their interracial friendship was more powerful because race was never mentioned.  Cosby took the same approach when he got his own series.  Racial discrimination and identity politics form an important structuring absence in The Bill Cosby Show.

In “The Fatal Phone Call,” Chet gets picked up by the cops because he resembles a vague description of a burglar they’re looking for.  He is a victim of racial profiling.  But Cosby hedges his bets by casting African Americans as two of the police officers, and then by playing the actual criminal himself in the closing gag of the show.  Chet’s uncanny resemblance to the thief means that the cops can’t be faulted for overt bigotry.

Is that a cop-out?  I’m not sure.  Casting a squat, bald black man who looked nothing like Cosby would have made a powerful statement, but that’s not the kind of show Cosby wanted to do.  He’s more concerned with a minute study of how Chet deals with the problem: he gets exasperated, then alarmed, but he contains his emotions and plays it cool.  Most TV shows in the sixties either ignored racism or railed against it, and I’ll bet that Cosby’s down-to-earth attack on the subject held more meaning for viewers who actually faced systemic racism in their daily lives.

In “The Gumball Incident,” an innocent Chet gets arrested for breaking a merchant’s gumball machine.  Chet has the option of paying off the complainant, but he submits to the arrest because of his faith that the system will vindicate him.  Cosby does a funny routine where he has trouble holding his booking sign the right way as the police (who are, again, multiracial) take his mug shot.  The sequence conveys no explicit political message, but it’s freighted with a meaning that would not be there if, say, Ted Bessell posed for a booking photograph on That Girl.

(In case you hadn’t noticed: That Girl is this week’s banal-sitcom whipping-post.)

At the end of “The Gumball Incident” Chet reconciles with the surly storekeeper.  In the interim, he has received scrupulously fair treatment by the police and the courts.  The plot of the episode evokes the specter of the Watts riots – a black man is accused of vandalism by a white business owner – but Cosby chooses to paint the situation in the most optimistic terms imaginable.  It’s possible to take this as naïve, and I wonder how African American audiences reacted to it back in 1969.  The Bill Cosby Show’s approach to matters of race is non-confrontational in the extreme.  Whenever Cosby addresses the subject, he’s pointed but indirect.  A photo of Dr. King or a Ray Charles album on prominent display in Chet’s apartment contextualize him within African American politics and culture.  But no one ever mentions the color of anyone’s skin.

The most potent of these unreferenced images of blackness involve Chet’s sexuality.  To put it in modern terms, Chet is a player.  He’s an unapologetic bachelor who lays a good line on a different beautiful black woman in nearly every episode.  Chet has game, and a sex appeal that will surprise anyone who only knows Cosby as Cliff Huxtable.  Chet never gets serious about any of his lady friends, and then when he does – in “The Blind Date,” which features a lovely, relaxed Cicely Tyson as a potential soulmate who breaks his heart – it carries a great deal of meaning.  The Bill Cosby Show debuted just before the blaxploitation era of aggressive African American pimps and studs, at a moment when Sidney Poitier faced criticism for muting his own sexuality in films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in order to court a wider (or whiter) audience.  In his typically subtle way, Cosby crossed one of the last barriers for black leading men.

That’s why I’m curious about Joyce Bulifant’s departure, and why The Bill Cosby Show poured cold water on her character’s flirtation with Chet.  Did Cosby oppose interracial dating?  Did he worry about provoking a controversy that would overshadow his quietly progressive take on race relations?   Did Cosby sacrifice Bulifant’s contributions in order to preserve the opportunity to place a variety of attractive black women in front of the camera?  Or was NBC simply too squeamish to put an interracial relationship on the air in 1969?

*

Since I started this blog, I have acquired a reputation as a Scroogy McScrooge who doesn’t like to laugh.  Except maybe when I’m kicking puppies or insulting dead actors.  Yes, that’s right: a sitcom-hater.  My detractors will be delighted to learn that I must be getting soft in my incipient middle age, because I have started watching Love American Style and I think it’s very funny.  Sometimes.

In purely formal terms, Love American Style, which also debuted in the fall of 1969, was as novel as The Bill Cosby Show.  An hour-long anthology, Love assembled three or four unrelated comic stories each week.  Interspersing with these were a half-dozen or so blackout gags, all less than sixty seconds in duration and featuring a regular cast of bit players.  The looseness of the format made the show feel more like a variety show than a sitcom, even though the material was typically sitcomic, right down to the laugh track.  The success of NBC’s free-form Laugh-In the previous year probably inspired ABC to dilute Love‘s structure and content to appeal to a wider audience.

A popular, five-season hit in its day, Love American Style has since acquired a reputation as a uniquely cringeworthy relic.  The show is redolent with nehru jackets and paisley party shirts, but the reason it’s dated now is because it didn’t tell much truth.  If the show had anything real to say about love or sex or relationships, its disinterment for DVD in 2007 wouldn’t have inspired a long say wha? in the New York Times, of all places.  Love took the easy route – it reduced its subject to a card-file of cliches, hoary vaudeville routines, and adolescent male fantasies.

The premiere episode, which was probably shot and broadcast first because it broached a “controversial” topic, concludes with a sketch entitled “Love and the Pill.”  The segment unfurls a dialogue between the parents of a teenaged girl and her mod young boyfriend.  Revealingly, the character who’s absent while the other parties discuss her reproductive rights is the teenager who may or may not be using the pill.  The big joke – wait for it – is whether or not the parents (Robert Cummings and iconic TV mom Jane Wyatt) will opt to mash up a contraceptive and spike their daughter’s food with it.

Love American Style is always like that.  Its default perspective is vaguely establishment and relentlessly male.  It takes a traditionally “female” genre (romance) and twists it into leering sex farce.  The funniest episodes are those in which a dweeby or creepy young man comes up with some clever trick for wearing down the resistance of a beautiful woman.  (If that sounds familiar, it may be because Judd Apatow’s modern, acclaimed “adult” comedies and their imitators founder on the same shoals of arrested development.)  Segments that revolve around middle-aged or elderly couples, or African Americans, usually play like musty old vaudeville routines.  Likely that’s because the youngish, white, male executive producers, Jim Parker and Arnold Margolin, couldn’t be easily budged from a point of view that came naturally to them.

Were a viewer to marathon-watch Love American Style today, the casual sexism would grow toxic.  But I did say that I liked this show, didn’t I?  Yes, that’s the shame: within its limits, here and there, Love American Style delivers laughs.


Exploring his options: That Girl‘s Ted Bessell must choose between stewardesses Diane McBain and Anjanette Comer in “Love and the Roommate.”

One reason for that is the anthology structure.  If you got tired of dropping in on Marlo Thomas and Ted Bessell year after year, you could click over to Love American Style, safe in the knowledge that this week’s quibbling couple would make their exeunt in twenty minutes or less.  This knowledge must have appealed to the writers even more than to the viewer, because they could end a script without having to return their characters to the same stasis they were in last week and would still be in next week.  Occasionally, a Love American Style segment takes advantage of that freedom and goes in for a bawdy laugh or out on a strange tangent.

“Love and the Living Doll,” in which Arte Johnson romances a blow-up doll in order to make a neighbor girl jealous, teeters intriguingly on the boundary between icky and cute.  “Love and the Watchdog” fetches some clever telephone humor out of a dognapping scenario (the owner wants to hear the dog bark before she’ll pay a ransom).  “Love and the Dating Computer” chronicles a botched blind date between two guys whose names are Francis and Marion, who find that the computer matched them perfectly in every other regard.  What sounds like an exercise in homophobia turns witty and endearing once it becomes clear that the writers, Michael Elias and Frank Shaw, aren’t going to coat the budding bromance with a layer of gay panic.  And the casting is inspired: Broderick Crawford has great fun playing against type as a sensitive, lonely bachelor.

Then there’s the segment in which newlywed Stefanie Powers tells husband Gary Lockwood that his mouth is too small, and he tries to prove her wrong by fellating a doorknob.  It’s called, yes, “Love and the Doorknob.”  I really don’t know what to say about this absurdist gem, except that suddenly I want to know more about the private lives of Doris and Frank Hursley, the soap opera royalty (they created General Hospital) who wrote it.

Only two things are worth mentioning about the tiny throwaway sketches that Love American Style used as a connective tissue between the main segments.  The first is that they made a star of sorts out of the rubber-faced Stuart Margolin (brother of Arnold Margolin, and later to play Angel on The Rockford Files), who was the only actor in the seven-member ensemble with any talent.  The second is that the “Love American Style Players,” as they were billed in the closing credits, were interracial (two black, five white).  That makes these otherwise innocuous vignettes as much a snapshot of network television’s take on race at the end of the sixties as The Bill Cosby Show.  It’s no surprise that Love American Style’s ideas on this subject are far more squirm-inducing and out of date than Cosby’s.  Partly that’s an accident of casting: Buzz Cooper, the African American romantic lead of the group, deployed an array of slack-jawed, sho’ nuff expressions that Willie Best would have envied.  (Cooper was replaced for the second season.)

But the more troubling aspect of the short sketches is that while the cast is interracial, the couples are always of the same race.  The vignettes pair off the seven performers in every possible heterosexual combination, except for mixed race couples.  After the first few episodes, Love American Style’s avoidance of that possibility becomes a pregnant case of passive racism.  I never understood why it was such a big deal when, in March of 1969, William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols enjoyed an interracial kiss in an episode of Star Trek.  Now I’m starting to get the picture.


Out of his league: Tracy Reed and Buzz Cooper of the “Love American Style Players.”

Correction (1/22/14): The original version of this piece misidentified the writer Frank Shaw (as Frank Davis).

A Hot Dog Makes Her Crazy

February 11, 2010

Quick rundown on the wave of great New York City-based TV shows from the early to mid-sixties: East Side / West Side, Naked City, The Defenders, The Nurses, The Patty Duke Show, Coronet Blue, N.Y.P.D. . . . .

Wait a minute: The Patty Duke Show?

Yes.  For its first two seasons, this rather innocuous Hollywood-style sitcom was actually filmed in New York.  That’s a fact that few television histories have dwelled upon.  Indeed, while I had guessed that The Patty Duke Show was lensed in New York based on some of its guest stars, I wasn’t sure my theory was accurate until the first season appeared on DVD last year. 

This aspect of geography might seem trivial.  But since I am, admittedly, not a great enthusiast when it comes to mainstream sitcoms, it was the element of The Patty Duke Show about which I was most curious when I took my first look at it.  

There weren’t too many comedy series shot in New York after the live era.  The important ones that come to mind are Nat Hiken’s The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where Are You?, both of which have a funky, nonconformist vibe.  They’re full of hustlers and oddballs, and in a sense they’re humorous counterpart to some of the dramas mentioned above, especially Naked City

But The Patty Duke Show was something of a Trojan horse.  Despite its New York pedigree, this family sitcom sought the same tone as the Hollywood-based domestic comedies that preceded it: Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show.  The parents were competent, the kids affable, the real world a safe distance away.  Apart from the presence of one foreign relation (more on her later), The Patty Duke Show focused on the same traditional nuclear unit that comprised most of the families in family comedies: father, mother, and two kids. 

Consciously or unconsciously, The Patty Duke Show sought to minimize its Brooklyn roots, even as it revealed a Manhattan skyline in the background any time someone in the Lane household opened the front door.   Whether due to budgetary limitations or ideology, The Patty Duke Show scrupulously avoided images of the city itself.  In the eighteen episodes I screened, the show’s characters stepped outdoors only once, in a brief scene in “How to Be Popular.”

Though they lived in urban setting, the problems of the Lane family were essentially suburban.  And although The Patty Duke Show debuted during the twilight of Camelot (in September 1963), most of the early plotlines could have been lifted from any domestic comedy of the fifties.  Dopey dad thinks the fishing license Patty obtains for him is actually her own marriage certificate (“The Elopement”).  Little brother Ross goes reluctantly on a first date (“The Birds and the Bees Bit”).  Eccentric Aunt Pauline comes for a visit.  And so on. 

It’s no surprise, then, that the creators of The Patty Duke Show were veterans of classic Hollywood comedy.  William Asher, the original producer and director, had been the primary director of I Love Lucy.  Sidney Sheldon was a screenwriter of MGM musicals, slumming in television for a decade before he found his way into a third career – one which would earn him billions – as an author of trashy novels.  Both men worked on The Patty Duke Show immediately prior to producing the two iconic fantasy sitcoms of the sixties: Asher’s Bewitched (1964-1972) and Sheldon’s I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970).

The one element of The Patty Duke Show that distinguishes it from its domestic predecessors is one that, though merely implausible, anticipates the outright supernatural element of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie.  Sheldon and Asher cast Duke not only as a typical American teenager, Patty Lane, but also as her identical cousin from Scotland, Cathy Lane.  (It’s worth remembering that Elizabeth Montgomery and Barbara Eden, the stars of Bewitched and Jeannie, both played recurring dual roles on their shows.) 

The Patty Duke Show never tried to explain the biological unlikelihood of identical cousins, although the title song’s irreverent lyrics did an adequate job of encouraging the audience to accept rather than question the premise.  I wonder if Sheldon made the Lane girls cousins rather than twins just to put a little distance between The Patty Duke Show and The Parent Trap, the popular 1961 Disney film from which its premise seems to have been lifted.

Like many successful TV series, The Patty Duke Show underwent a great deal of turmoil before finding the right mix of on- and off-camera talent towards the middle of its first season.  The series’ pilot was re-shot, with William Schallert replacing Mark Miller in the role of Patty Lane’s father, and most of the original footage was recycled into an “origins” story that became the final episode of the first season, “The Cousins.”  The most obvious alteration in the reshoots was Duke’s hairdo, which was changed from a frumpy bob (similar to Hayley Mills’s in The Parent Trap) in the pilot to the lighter, longer wig she wore for the rest of the series.  The Patty Duke Show was produced by United Artists, a “mini-major” film studio which never produced much television.  Its other big show of 1963 was East Side / West Side, which presented UA with the same problem: a pilot that varied so greatly from the rest of the series that it couldn’t be dropped seamlessly amid the subsequent episodes.  East Side / West Side was such a ratings loser that UA finally aired the pilot without explanation.  The Patty Duke Show, at least, merited enough funding to produce “The Cousins,” but in the meantime UA managed to thoroughly confuse  viewers by mixing footage of Duke wearing both hairdos into the first season’s opening title sequence.  It was an indifference toward continuity that wouldn’t be tolerated by today’s audiences.

The Patty Duke Show churned through three producers in its first year.  William Asher left around the time the show debuted on ABC; in his excellent memoir When the Shooting Stops … The Cutting Begins, supervising editor Ralph Rosenblum wrote that Asher was fired and his contract bought out due to his continual indecisiveness.  Part of Asher’s payoff may have been a co-creator credit; until midway through the first season, Sheldon alone was listed as The Patty Duke Show’s creator.  Replacing Asher were producer Robert Costello (later of Dark Shadows) and director Stanley Prager (who eventually took over the producing job as well).  Prager was a blacklisted actor and Broadway director who remains surprisingly little-remembered today, perhaps because he died young in 1972. 

Costello and Prager, longtime New York-based producers, may have gotten on better than the outsider Asher did with a distinguished crew that included: Rosenblum (later famous as Woody Allen’s editor during the seventies; line producer Stanley Neufeld and art director Robert Gundlach, recent veterans of Naked City who were probably very happy to come in out of the cold for the studio-bound Patty Duke Show; and composer Sid Ramin, who must have had the world’s best agent.  Ramin receives not only an unprecedented credit in the opening titles, but also a second solo title card in the end credits.  He is forgotten today, but had, at the time of The Patty Duke Show, just won both an Oscar and a Grammy for orchestrating Leonard Bernstein’s score for West Side Story.


One of the many New York stage actors who appeared on The Patty Duke Show was a teenaged John Spencer (in “How to Be Popular”), thirty-five years before he played Leo McGarry on The West Wing.

So far I’ve focused on the minutiae The Patty Duke Show’s production history without saying much about its content.  Regarding the latter, I’m relieved to be able report that the series will prove at least tolerable to sitcom-phobes like myself, and probably delightful to everyone else.  The show excels for one reason alone (or maybe two, depending on how you count): Patty Duke.  My memory of her work in the few other productions in which I had seen Duke – The Miracle Worker, the treacly “Mrs. McBroom and the Cloud Watcher” episode of Ben Casey, the horrid high-school comedy Billie, Night Gallery’s “The Diary,” and of course Valley of the Dolls – was that she tended to come across as shrill and overbearing.  Now I suspect my impressions had more to do with weaknesses in the material than with Duke’s talent. 

Here, Duke is never less than likeable, and often funnier than the bland material.  In “The Birds and the Bees Bit,” obnoxious Ross says that he’s lost one of his marbles; Patty’s comeback (“Whaaaaaat an opening!”) is so obvious it’s barely a joke, but Duke cracked me up with her delivery.  When the show shifts occasionally into light drama – as in “The Birds and the Bees Bit” when Patty recalls her own childhood awkwardness, or “The Drop Out,” a turgid stay-in-school treatise with an odd emphasis on the economic disparity between Patty’s family and her boyfriend’s – Duke reminds us of her Helen Keller bona fides.

The Patty Duke Show reveals not only Duke’s versatility, but also a technical proficiency in her work that is as startling as Meryl Streep’s.  I suspect Sheldon was drawn to The Parent Trap’s dual-role gimmick because he understood that Duke would be wasted playing a standard-issue teenaged girl.  Cathy’s Scottish accent would have been enough to cue the audience as to who was who, but Duke developed an extensive catalog of mannerisms and facial expressions to distinguish between the brainy, reserved Cathy and the conformist chatterbox Patty.  Cathy’s crinkle-eyed giggle and Patty’s open-mouthed exuberance (as captured in the first season opening titles) were trademarks of each character:   


Patty Duke as Cathy Lane


Patty Duke as Patty Lane

It would be cringeworthy to suggest that Duke’s later diagnosis with bipolar disorder had something to do with her skill at switching between two opposite personalities within the same project, except that Duke makes that very point in a new interview that appears on the DVD.  (Also intriguing is the fact that Sidney Sheldon, who created the Lane cousins while Duke lived with his family for a few weeks, suffered from bipolar disorder as well.)

Contrary to my expectations, The Patty Duke Show does not overuse the Parent Trap-derived device of identity-switching between the identical girls.  Fewer than a third of the episodes have Patty and Cathy changing places to fool someone, and in most of those the swap is incidental rather than central to the plot.  As someone who got tired of Durwood or Major Nelson falling for this kind of switcheroo far too often, I’d like to give Sidney Sheldon credit for anticipating his audience and underusing the obvious gimmick inherent in The Patty Duke Show’s premise.  But what actually happened, I suspect, is that Sheldon became captivated by Patty Lane’s freewheeling enthusiasms and intricate, mile-a-minute slang, to the extent that Duke’s Cathy Lane became a supporting character in her own show.  Even though her exotic background might have been expected to launch more than her share of storylines, Cathy, like the other members of the Lane family, developed into a straight man (straight person?) for Patty’s antics.

It’s fascinating to watch Duke come alive as Patty Lane in a way that she does not as Cathy.  Patty is assertive and unflappable; though she has a firm grasp of the status quo and little desire to challenge it, she also does not deny herself any pleasure or goal that it occurs to her to seek out.  In that way, Patty may be placed in the company of more obvious pre-feminist women of early sixties television, like Laura Petrie of The Dick Van Dyke Show or Liz Thorpe of The Nurses.  She also reminds me, even though she’s quite unlike either character, of Allison Mackenzie and Betty Anderson of Peyton Place, which would debut on ABC a year after The Patty Duke Show.  The ethereal Allison and the grasping Betty were teenagers defined by their trajectory out of youth (and their small town home) and into adulthood (and the city).  It’s equally possible to view the slightly younger Patty Lane as a prototypical adult rather than an average teen.  This quality comes through mainly in Duke’s boundless confidence, which the show met with storylines that had Patty Lane engaging in atypically mature endeavors – pursuing a sexually experienced older man (“The French Teacher”) or adopting a Korean child (“Patty, the Foster Mother”). 

Although the episodes I’ve seen maintain Patty’s good reputation, there is just a hint of a sexual subtext to her precocity.  The show saddles Patty with the dopiest boyfriend in the history of television: Richard Harrison (the funny Eddie Applegate), an easygoing underachiever to whom Patty seems attracted mainly because he obeys orders willingly.  If Patty was assertive with Richard in all other things, might she not have tugged him behind the bleachers and urged him toward or second or third base?  Patty Lane, in contrast to her cousin, strikes me as the kind of teenager whose natural curiosity and impatience would extend to the functions of physical intimacy; my mother, who was about Patty’s age in 1963, might have called her “fast.” 


Eddie Applegate as Richard

It would feel creepy to pick up on a sexual component in the performance of a sixteen year-old actress, if not for the facts we now know about Patty Duke’s offscreen life: that she was sexually abused before or during the production of the series by her guardian and manager, John Ross (who also scored an associate producer credit on The Patty Duke Show); and that Duke married Harry Falk, Jr., a young assistant director who worked on her show, a year before it went off the air in 1966.  So sexual awareness was indeed an component in the actress’s own teenaged development, even as familial warmth was not; in her interview for the DVD, Duke touchingly points out that she enjoyed making the show so that she could bask in the illusion of a standard-issue family that Sheldon had created for her.

That brings us around to my original entry point into The Patty Duke Show, the seemingly anomalous decision to shoot the series in New York City.  I had guessed that perhaps Duke has some theater commitment or family roots that led United Artists to bring the show to her, rather than Duke to Los Angeles.  It turns out that the motive was more sinister.  As William Schallert reveals in his interview for the DVD, New York was chosen solely because it allowed the producers to circumvent California’s stricter child labor laws.  Duke would have been restricted to a five-hour workday in Los Angeles – difficult for any teen with a regular part in a TV series, but impossible for one cast in a dual starring role.  In New York, she could work a full twelve-hour day.  Paul O’Keefe, who played Ross Lane, had an even more herculean workload; he shot his scenes while appearing in the title role in Oliver!, eight times a week, during part of its 1963-1964 Broadway run.  Neither of them spent much, if any, time with an on-set teacher.  The Patty Duke Show was a far distance from the suburbs, all right.

Return of the Goldbergs

December 2, 2009

Usually I don’t post DVD news here, but this is too big a scoop to resist.

I’ve been informed by a reliable source that The Goldbergs, the Jewish family comedy first telecast from 1949-1956, will be coming to DVD in a big way in early 2010.

This Goldbergs release will be a “complete” series set, compiled by a well-known DVD producer and distributed by another label that specializes in classic television.  “Complete” appears in quotation marks because The Goldbergs was, of course, staged live during all but its final season, so many of the episodes no longer exist.  But the DVD set will gather all of the surviving kinescopes from the series’ various incarnations – it had runs on CBS, NBC, and DuMont, with a number of cast changes along the way – as well as all thirty-nine segments shot on film for the show’s last season.  I don’t know the exact tally, but it will be over sixty episodes.

The 1950 feature film version of The Goldbergs (a Paramount property) will not be included.  But the DVD set will contain some segments from the radio version of The Goldbergs, which ran on NBC and CBS for nearly twenty years, as well as the pilot for Berg’s next series, Mrs. G Goes to College.

I’ve only seen one episode of The Goldbergs and have no idea how well the show will hold up, as a comedy, today.  But its cultural significance is enormous.  The Goldbergs was the most popular of the “ethnic” situation comedies that thrived in the early fifties but died out as TV expanded outward from New York and Chicago into America’s less diverse regions.  Maybe even more importantly, The Goldbergs was the first TV series with a female “showrunner”; Gertrude Berg, the creator, star, and frequent writer, reportedly had total control over the show’s content.

Of course, I’ll have more to say about this exciting development once it becomes a reality.

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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.

Gone Fishin’

August 24, 2008

Back in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, looking at that image reminds me of a game I used to play with a friend. 

Back in the late nineties, when it seemed that every sixties sitcom was being remade as a lousy film nobody had asked for (Dennis the Menace, My Favorite Martian, McHale’s Navy, etc.), Stuart and I used to pass slow afternoons at the archive by speculating on who they’d cast in the inevitable The Andy Griffith Show: The Movie.  Judi Dench as Aunt Bee?  Adam Sandler as Barney Fife?  Bruce Dern as Floyd the barber?  Donald Sutherland as Briscoe Darling?

Anyone who wants to play along is invited to do so in the comments.

Herbert Kenwith, a busy episodic television director, died on January 30.  I’m not sure why the news has taken so long to surface, but a paid obit (reprinted below) turned up in the LA Times only on Sunday, followed by a notice in Variety

I can’t add much to what his survivors wrote, except to point out that Kenwith was one of the last (perhaps the last) of the original group of New York-based live TV directors to transition into a successful career in filmed & taped shows on the west coast.  (He may be best remembered for directing one of the really incoherent third-season Star Trek episodes, “The Lights of Zetar,” but Kenwith found his niche in half-hour sitcoms, especially for Norman Lear.)  And that if I’d known Kenwith had taken six years off his age, I might have approached him for an  interview before it was too late…. 

Herbert Kenwith, a director and producer for both television and Broadway, died Wednesday, January 30, 2008, at his home in Los Angeles, of complications from prostate cancer. He was 90.

Kenwith, born in New Jersey, started his career as an actor and appeared in several Broadway productions. His last Broadway appearance was in “I Remember Mama” with Marlon Brando, produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein. The first theatrical play he produced and directed was “Night Must Fall” starring Dame May Whitty. As Broadway’s youngest producer, Kenwith produced “Me and Molly,” which was voted “One of the season’s ten best plays.”

Kenwith, for six extremely successful summers, produced and directed all 65 productions for Princton University’s McCarter Theater. Leads included Lucille Ball, Mae West, Charlton Heston, Shelly Winters, Cesar Romero, Walter Matthau, Maureen Stapleton, Eve Arden, Constance and Joan Bennett, Paul Muni, Miriam Hopkins, Gloria Swanson, Jeanette MacDonald, Zazu Pitts and Nancy Davis.

Thereafter, CBS hired Kenwith as an asscociate director, and within seven weeks he was assigned to direct the soap opera, “Valiant Lady,” followed by “Lamp Under My Feet,” “Suspicion,” “The Investigator,” “The Polly Bergen Show,” and Jonathan Winters in his weekly show. He also directed “The Doctors” at NBC for the first three years, starring Ellen Burstyn. His TV Special credits include stars such as Danny Kaye, Billy Eckstein, Sidney Poitier and even Rose Kennedy.

Within three weeks upon his arrival in Hollywood, he was directing episodes of “Death Valley Days,” “Name of The Game,” “Marcus Welby,” “Star Trek,” “Daktari,” and “Mister Deeds,” along with TV pilots for all the networks.

Norman Lear signed Kenwith to a seven year contract as producer/director on “Different Strokes,” “Facts of Life” and “All That Glitters”. He directed “Good Times,” “One Day At A Time,” “Sanford and Son,” “Joe’s World,” and numerous other primetime sitcoms.

Friends and family will miss his unique sense of humor, unflinching loyalty and dedication to his craft. Survivors include his niece, Lori Low-Schwartz, and nephews, Arnold Winick, Richard Flexner and Gary Low.
Published in the Los Angeles Times on 3/2/2008.

Jack Gross, Jr., sitcom writer, died on December 14.  Writing with partner Michael R. Stein, Gross had a brief flurry of activity in the mid-60s, penning two scripts for “Gilligan’s Island” as well as episodes of “Valentine’s Day,” “My Favorite Martian,” and “Tarzan.”  Alone, Gross contributed to the screenplays for the 7os schlock films Clay Pigeon and Welcome to Arrow Beach

That’s fairly thin list of credits, and I have no idea what else Gross may have been doing during his screenwriting career, although there’s some evidence from the IMDb that he (along with Fred De Gorter, another sometime writing partner) may have written for UPA’s Mr. Magoo series, or possibly other cartoons.

The paid death notice in today’s Los Angeles Times has a few biographical details: 

GROSS, Jack (78), of Murrieta Hot Springs, CA, passed away Dec. 14, 2007. Jack was born Feb. 4, 1929 to parents Jack O. Gross and Loretta Glazer Gross. He graduated from Pt. Loma High School in 1947. His father founded KFMB, which was the first television station in San Diego, in 1949. Jack lived abroad in Europe for several years before graduating from San Fernando Valley State College (now known as Cal State Northridge). He later earned a master’s degree from the USC School of Cinema in 1973. Jack was best known as a television writer who wrote for many of the classic situation comedies of the 1960s and 1970s, including Gilligan’s Island, My Favorite Martian, Tarzan, and Diff’rent Strokes. He will be remembered for his never-ending sense of humor and his laid back attitude towards life. He was predeceased by his brother Laurence. He is survived by his wife Joan, and son Josh, publisher of Beverly Hills Weekly. Services were private. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Writers Guild Foundation.
Published in the Los Angeles Times on 12/18/2007.

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