January 2, 2013
Wagon Train continues to serve as my go-to comfort food whenever I have the sniffles and don’t feel up to watching something that might be, y’know, good. Over the holidays, I plowed through a middle chunk of the third season, which yielded such mild discoveries / pleasures as a twenty-five year old Louise Fletcher (as Estella in “The Tom Tuckett Story,” a credited adaptation of Great Expectations!) and Elisha Cook, Jr., as a dangerous trail weasel named Cadge Waldo (in “The Tracy Sadler Story”). If you’re going to name a character “Cadge Waldo,” you pretty much have to get Elisha Cook to play him. Leonard Nimoy as a drunken Indian and Susan Oliver, loudly proclaiming that her name is Margaret Hamilton (which is hilarious if you know your character actresses), as a spoiled teenager in “The Maggie Hamilton Story.” “Look at that beautiful rabbit!” Susan exclaims dimly, and Flint (Robert Horton) blows it away for dinner.
Minor pleasures amid hazy naps.
The way Revue Productions did its screen credits around this time (1959-1960) was procrustean. Most shows had one or two end credit cards for the guest stars, and if everyone fit, they got screen credit; if not, they didn’t. A Wagon Train episode with few guest stars had room in the credits for all of them, including bit players and even stuntmen. In an episode with a large cast, however, actors with major secondary roles might get left out. If a top-lining guest star required extra-large type or single card billing, that would further serve to crowd out some of the supporting actors. Nobody really cared whether the actors received credit or not – which leaves fussy historians, fifty-odd years later, waiting for each set of end titles with fingers crossed.
The 1959 Christmas episode, “The St. Nicholas Story,” sees the train’s Santa Claus arrow-speared by unfriendly Indians. Missing children from both sides find each other on the plains and frolic together, thus brokering an uneasy truce. And Ward Bond saves Christmas. Somehow, it’s less nauseating than it sounds, but amidst the chaos the actress playing the Indian boy’s mother went uncredited:
“The Lita Foladaire Story” is a rare off-campus episode for trailmaster Major Adams, who solves a frontier-town murder mystery with the help of sidekicks Bill Hawks and Charlie Wooster. Too many suspects for the end credits; left out are the sheriff (top, on the right with Ward Bond) and one “Jason Arnold,” attorney at law, who pops in briefly to deliver a bit of exposition (bottom, also on the right with Bond; shall we say that director Jerry Hopper’s sense of composition was, er, consistent):
Then in “The Christine Elliott Story,” the title character (Phyllis Thaxter) shepherds a dozen mischievous boys onto the wagon train once her father drops dead and his orphanage closes. This one is about as nauseating as it sounds. Oddly, while seven of the twelve child actors receive screen credit, the elderly fellow playing Thaxter’s father, “John Russell,” does not, even though he has a lengthy deathbed scene:
So can anyone ID these uncredited Wagon Trainers? As it happens, all three of these episodes are on Youtube in their entirety. For “The St. Nicholas Story,” see 26:50; for “The Lita Foladaire Story,” see 01:45 and 30:00; for “The Christine Elliott Story,” see 02:50. But don’t watch Wagon Train on Youtube for pleasure; these copies are way too compressed. Spring for the DVDs.)
P.S. Bonus screed against the IMDb et. al.: Look around the internet and you’ll see the titles of many Wagon Train episodes, most of which incorporate the names of the primary guest characters, misspelled on many data aggregation sites. As the screen grab below makes clear, it’s Elliott with two T’s, and yet it’s spelled as “Elliot” on IMDb.com, tvguide.com, starz.com, tvrage.com, tviv.org, zap2it.com, and even most of the Youtube accounts that have posted the video illegally. “The Vittorio Botticelli Story,” also from the third season, is often garbled as “The Vittorio Bottecelli Story.” Yet another reason why I still transcribe the credits of most vintage TV episodes that I watch, even though the internet has made some of that work (but not every detail of it) redundant.
December 11, 2012
Earlier this month, this blog’s fifth anniversary passed quietly by – so quietly, in fact, that I almost forgot about it myself.
To commemorate — or demean — the occasion, I’ve signed us all up for Twitter! If you’re on there, you can follow this blog at @smilingcobra. In case you’re wondering, @classictvhistory was one character too long (already, I am regretting this), and, although most of you probably already know who the Smiling Cobra was, I explained that on Monday.
Like several other writers I know, my attitude about Twitter has gone from “140 characters? That’s ridiculous” to “ah, crap, do I really have to get on Twitter?” to finally pulling the trigger. When the “Turkeys, Away!” oral history bounced around the internet a bit last month, my Google metrics provided an object lesson in where web traffic comes from these days — and, like it or not, Twitter was out front. There were also a lot of other social networking and aggregate sites that I’m not going to have any truck with (what the fuck is Getpocket?), but if it’s easier for you to follow the blogs you read on Twitter, now you have that option with this one.
Although I don’t have any concrete plans to produce unique content there, I suspect I won’t be able to resist posting goofy screen grabs and links that don’t warrant a full-on entry here. It will be on-topic and won’t (unlike my Facebook account) double as a personal space, in case you’re afraid of stumbling over some lefty politics.
November 30, 2012
I figured that last week’s tribute to “Turkeys Away” might be enough of a populist idea to reach some readers beyond the regulars here, but I wasn’t prepared for how viral it went. The Washington Post and (ugh) The Huffington Post linked to it, Shawn Ryan (creator of The Shield) “tweeted” it, and it has already become the most widely read (or at least glanced-at) piece I’ve published here, by a wide margin. So, I’m very … wait for it … thankful for that (and yet, still irritated that I couldn’t track down some WKRP folks, especially Richard Sanders, in time).
All of that being not to toot my own horn (well, not just that), but to recommend two recent articles you absolutely have to read if you liked the WKRP thing: Brian Raftery’s juicy oral history of Cheers (Kelsey Grammer, wotta joik) and Edward Copeland’s herculean three-part history of St. Elsewhere (here, here, and here), which is based largely on interviews with many of the show’s writer/producers and cast (and Michael Dukakis!). Copeland devotes an entire page to one aspect of St. Elsewhere that I’d always found puzzling, then off-putting, then unintentionally hilarious: the Job-like suffering heaped upon David Morse’s appealing underdog character, Jack Morrison. I actually had the idea to do the WKRP oral history before these pieces were published — in fact, it occurred to me last Thanksgiving, and I was steamed about having to wait another whole year to do it! — but I definitely had both of these articles, especially the Cheers one, in mind when I was assembling my little mini-history of “Turkeys Away.”
One of the more interesting tidbits in Copeland’s piece answered something only tangentially St. Elsewhere-related that I’d often wondered about:
The typical episode of St. Elsewhere took seven days to shoot, though the length of shooting days on series varies widely today. Tinker, who now serves as executive producer on ABC’s Private Practice, the spinoff from Shonda Rimes’ Grey’s Anatomy, continues to direct not only on that show but others as well as he has in the years since the doors closed on St. Eligius. “Most shows (today) are eight, some of them are nine. For all but the last year of NYPD Blue, we did eight days. For the last year, in order to take about a million dollars out of every episode, we did seven-day shows,” Tinker said. On (Private Practice), for the first five years we did nine-day shows and we sort of did the same trick for this year, and then we took a day off and made a bunch of budget cuts, so we’re doing eight-day shows now. Some of the cable shows, like The Closer, did seven all the time.” Just for comparison to other cable shows currently on the air: HBO’s True Blood averages between 11 and 14 days to film an episode, while AMC’s Breaking Bad typically shoots an installment in eight days.
Of course, from the fifties through the sixties, shooting schedules were far more rigid: half-hour dramas were almost always filmed in three days (or less, at Revue and other cheapo outfits), hour-long shows in five or six. Another sea change at work today: When I spoke to Michael Zinberg, calling in from the set of an episode of The Good Wife that he was directing, for the WKRP piece, he mentioned that almost all of the network TV dramas are shot on digital video today, the final (and surprising) exceptions being Shonda Rhimes’s shows (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal).
More essential reading: the Hollywood Reporter‘s sixty-five-years-too-late analysis of its own role in fostering the blacklist. Be sure to check out the sidebars too, especially the profile of some of the few living blacklistees (all but one of whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting and chatting with at some point). Some readers don’t get the connection, but the blacklist is really a secret author of this blog. You can’t underestimate the influence that the blacklist, and the anti-left hysteria surrounding it, had on the medium of television in its infancy. And while it’s always nice to see the subject get some fresh attention (Dave Robb’s reporting for THR on the blacklist, and the related issue of Hollywood unionism, during the nineties was also exceptional), it’s dispiriting to see how much hate and ignorance has been expressed in the comments on those Hollywood Reporter articles, by a few people whose understanding of communism and the Cold War seems to derive entirely from reading Time magazine, circa 1949. I don’t understand how anyone can still seriously believe that the Hollywood communists (and their fellow radicals) posed any practical or ideological threat to the United States, and also I don’t understand why anyone still has a stake in the matter, apart from the blacklist victims themselves. Memo to Richard Schickel, et. al.: the Cold War is dunzo.
P.S. I mentioned last month that I’ve also been writing about the stage actress Dorothy Loudon on the New York Public Library’s blog. Those articles were an offshoot of a new digital exhibition, which I helped to curate and which just launched today, that showcases the Dorothy Loudon Papers, an archival collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
October 31, 2012
October 16, 2012
This is the greatest thing I’ve seen in a long time.
Has there ever been a more mediocre show with a cooler theme song than Simon & Simon?