Bad Girls, Good Girls

April 18, 2013

DenhamBook

Lately I’ve been sleeping with bad boys.

Whoops, I mean I’ve been reading Sleeping with Bad Boys (Book Republic, 2006), novelist and Playboy centerfold model Alice Denham’s memoir of the fifties and sixties literary scene in New York.  She crossed paths with most of the major American writers during that period and, as the title implies, bedded many of them.  And even though she dishes on dick size now and then, the book is more of a literary memoir than a boudoir tell-all.   Denham’s frankness about her drive to succeed as a novelist, and to be recognized as an equal by her male peers, is an appealing story, and she sketches a detailed, fascinating portrait of the boozy, thuddingly sexist Manhattan of the immediate pre-Mad Men era.

If you’re wondering why I’m writing about this here, it’s because inevitably Denham also met (and, yes, bedded) a lot of people who were active in television in the fifties.  The scenes overlapped; the literary crowd, including Denham, could make a quick buck in television (or on it, in Denham’s case, since she was cute enough to get hired for TV ads).  Denham describes brief encounters with sometime TV scribes like Gore Vidal, Vance Bourjaily, and Barnaby Conrad.  She had an intimate friendship with James Dean during his live TV days, and grew up (in Washington, D.C.) with Dean’s friend Christine White, an actress who played leads on The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents but disappeared by the mid-sixties.  (Denham writes that White became a “Jesus freak,” recruiting converts on street corners).  Denham dated Ralph Meeker for a while, and Gary Crosby – one of Bing’s balding, no-talent actor sons – once offered her a hundred bucks for sex.  (Did she accept?  Read the book.)

One of Denham’s most interesting brushes with television came just before the quiz show scandals.  She knew Steve Carlin, the producer of The $64,000 Challenge, and Carlin hired her for a “test” broadcast of the show.  Because it wasn’t “real,” Carlin told her which question to lose on, even though she knew the answer, and Denham did as she was told.  Only after the scandals broke did she realize that Carlin probably did that with everyone.  That’s an especially duplicitous method for rigging the shows that I hadn’t heard of before.

Finally there’s Gardner McKay, another of Denham’s fifties boyfriends.  I knew that McKay left Hollywood to become a painter, but I’d always imagined him dabbing away at godawful still lifes on a beach somewhere.  In fact, Denham’s sketch of the six-foot-five dreamboat portrays him as a serious artist, struggling to express himself as she was, and venturing reluctantly into acting out of the same economic necessity that compelled her to shuck her clothes.  Maybe that’s why I always found McKay so fascinating on Adventures in Paradise.  Beneath his woodenness, there was an aloof quality, a hardcore indifference that made him just right to play a footloose, beachcombing adventurer, unfazed by any of the trouble he encountered on the seas and in sketchy ports.  Those other stiffs, the Robert Conrads and the Troy Donahues, were trying too hard.  McKay, as they always used to say of Robert Mitchum, really didn’t give a damn.

 *

FrancisBook

Anne Francis was a more prominent and more ambiguous sex symbol than Denham, a creature unique to the fifties-sixties celluloid realm in which screen goddesses were either lushly available (Kim Novak) or coyly off-limits (Doris Day).  More than anyone else, Francis mashed up both into a confusing package: she had Marilyn Monroe’s beauty mark, adorning a bobbysoxer’s cute, dimpled smile.  She was eminently feminine but, like the equally fascinating Beverly Garland, also a pants-wearing ass-kicker.  Francis had her career-defining role in an action hero role that broke down gender barriers.  Honey West was a terrible show, a condescending and brain-dead dud that producer Aaron Spelling dumbed down from a sparkling Link & Levinson premise.  And yet so many of us bend over backwards to pretend that Honey West doesn’t suck, and that’s entirely because of Francis.  She played the blithe, lithe private eye so confidently, so deliciously, that in our heads it morphs from cartoonish junk that pitted poor Honey against Robin Hood and guys in gorilla suits into a sophisticated show about a heroine who vanquishes serious bad guys (and sleeps with bad boys).

Francis was never quite an A-list star but she remains universally adored by movie and TV buffs, an object of desire for the men and of empowerment for women.  That puts her in the category of performers who warrant book-length treatment, but only – and so often to their detriment – by semi-professional authors working for semi-professional trade presses like McFarland or Bear Manor Media.  Francis’s turn came two years ago in a book by Laura Wagner.

Something of a minor cult figure herself, Laura Wagner has a loyal circle on Facebook, where she writes a de facto blog profiling Golden Age movie actors (many of them tantalizingly obscure).  These “birthday salutes” are pithy, well-researched, and often enriched with revealing quotes from widows and children.  But sometimes the real attraction seems to be the cathartic scorn that Wagner (who also writes for Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age) heaps upon readers who leave comments or ask questions without actually reading her articles.  (You’d think people would stop making that mistake after a while, but they don’t.)

So I was disappointed to find that Wagner’s Anne Francis: The Life and Career (McFarland, 2011) has little of the energy or the inquisitive rigor of her short-form work.  It’s a dutiful, conservative, and surprisingly incurious account of Francis’s eighty years, one that gathers enough facts to intrigue readers but ultimately fails to suss out whatever inner life fueled Francis’s ineffably perky-sexy screen personality.  Francis had two early, failed marriages, one to a troubled filmmaker-poseur named Bamlet Price, the other to a Beverly Hills dentist; and she had two children, one by the dentist and the other adopted when she was forty.  She was a single mother of two daughters when it was still uncommon (her adoption was one of the first granted to an unmarried woman by a California court), and also a flaky enlightenment-seeker of a uniquely SoCal stripe; there were associations with obscure metaphysical churches, forays into motivational speaking, and even a barely-published autobiography called Voices From Home: An Inner Journey.

But we learn little about any of that, or any deeper or darker stories in Francis’s life, apart from what was reported in the personality columns.  Wagner rounds up hundreds of generic Francis quotes from impersonal newspaper interviews, and some livelier and slightly more introspective lines from the chatty and now sadly defunct website that Francis maintained in the early 2000s (an archive of which would probably have more value than this book).  Here and there, the batting about of quotes works.  If you’ve ever wondered why Francis has such a nothing part in William Wyler’s Funny Girl, Wagner stitches together a plausible explanation, and untangles the minor controversy of what complaints Francis did or did not lodge publicly against her co-star Barbra Streisand.  But much of the book is perversely dry.  Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen gives a somewhat juicier peek at Francis’s romantic life, citing flings with Buddy Bregman, actor Liam Sullivan, and director Herman Hoffman, all of which remain uninvestigated by Wagner.  And Tom Weaver, a more incisive historian who knew Francis well and who should have written this book, has published anecdotes that portray her as youthful and down-to-earth:

My favorite day with her: Riding around Westchester County (NY) with her and my brother: Going to Ossining (where she was born), showing her Sing Sing (the Francis family physician was unavailable, so she was delivered by the Sing Sing doctor), finding her childhood home in Peekskill, going to some cemetery and finding the grave of her mother (or father? I forget), etc.

Then a whole bunch of us (two cars worth) got together at some steak house in Irvington for lunch. On the highway afterwards, I realized I’d brought along a couple VHS tapes to give to a buddy (a guy who’d been at the lunch), and forgotten. But my brother pointed ahead on the road and said, “Well, there’s his car.” Anne (riding shotgun) said, “Give me the tapes!” We got up to about 75 or 80 MPH to catch up with the other car, and she kinda got up and stuck her head and shoulders out the window and, at 75 or 80 MPH, she handed the tapes to the driver of the other car.

Why aren’t those stories in the book?  Instead Wagner contents herself by weighing in on just about every Francis performance, which she does in two separate, consecutive slogs through the actress’s CV: a biographical narrative with a heavy emphasis on the work over the personal life, and then an arguably redundant annotated filmography (which comprises almost half of the book’s 257 pages).  This tack does permit Wagner to highlight some overlooked performances and dig up some obscure odds and ends that any Francis cultist will covet.  For instance, there’s Survival, the essentially unreleased experimental debut film (filmed in 1969, unfinished until 1976) by director Michael Campus (The Mack), which was written by the great John D.F. Black and seems to be unfindable today.  There’s Gemini Rising, the only thing Francis directed, a short film set at a rodeo; Francis was a buff,  and it’s unsurprising that she was at home in such an incongruously masculine environment.  Then there was the unsold pilot for a syndicated proto-reality series in which Anne would have fixed up things around the house each week (“plumbing, carpentry, and electricity”!).  Anne Francis, plunging a toilet: I would have watched that show.

Unfortunately, Wagner’s filmography double-tap also draws out a lot of self-indulgent stabs at criticism that are dubiously relevant and mostly devoid of insight.  Here’s one of the strangest misreadings of The Fugitive that I’ve ever run across:

Week after week, Kimble would travel around, befriending strangers, all of whom were supposed to sense his innate goodness and innocence and allow him to move on to the next town to resume his search.  The problem with this is quite apparent herein.  Janssen played Kimble as brooding, mumbling, never making eye contact, always giving evasive answers.  There was nothing attractive or honest about him.

And a review of an Alfred Hitchcock Hour that might have been written for a junior high school newspaper:

Anne gives a sympathetic showing here as a woman dissatisfied with her life and feeling trapped by her loveless marriage, turning to booze and boys to fill the void.  (Nice work, if you can get it.)

            The suspense is palpable in this episode, but it is almost ruined by Rhodes’ one-note performance and Strauss’ wildly fluctuating one.  Physically the darkly gorgeous Rhodes, who was dating Anne at the time, is perfect for the part, and he is convincing in their love scenes, but someone should have coached him on his lines.  Ah, the beautiful but the dumb…

            Strauss is supposed to be childlike, overly possessive, and just a complete fool.  Yet, Strauss’ leer and ominous intonations just about give the twist away.  And what can you say about the supposedly unsettling twist ending?  Sorry, but I laughed.

Meanwhile, Francis’s four-year battle with lung cancer and her death in 2011 are covered in exactly one paragraph.

The tragically missed opportunity here, of course, is that Wagner chose not to talk to any of the dozens of co-workers or relatives who might have offered a peek at the real Anne Francis.  (There’s one odd and somehow appropriately irrelevant exception: novelist Gloria Fickling, the co-creator of Honey West, who had little to do with the television series).  Francis’s Forbidden Planet co-stars (at least four of whom outlived her) and John Ericson, her Honey West leading man, are particularly important sources who go unqueried.  The reasons behind Francis’s firing from Riptide are not explored, even though Jo Swerling, the producer cited as having given the pink-slip to her agent, is still around.  And what about Rhodes – still living and working in Vancouver – or some of the other men Francis dated during the second half of her life?  Francis’s daughters are not hard to find and, amazingly, Dr. Robert Abeloff still lives and practices in Beverly Hills.  How could Wagner resist asking how a dentist seduced one of the most desirable movie stars of her generation?

Wagner does not make a case for her hands-off approach in her introduction but, whatever her reasoning, I think it’s a terrible mistake.  I once complained that one of Martin Grams’s encyclopedic tomes wasn’t a book, it was a file cabinet.  Less ambitious, equally flawed, Anne Francis: The Life and Career isn’t a biography; it’s just a clipping file.

Veteran assistant director, production manager, and producer James H. Brown died on July 10.  He was 80.

Brown also directed a handful of television episodes: six Honey Wests, at least one Tales of Wells Fargo, a Wagon Train, an Alfred Hitchcock Hour, a trio of Longstreets, a Doc Elliot, and a Circle of Fear.  But he spent most of his career in production, a reliable behind-the-scenes man tasked with keeping the creative types on time and on budget.

Brown was a source for several things I’ve written over the years, starting when he was in college in the late nineties.  He was at an important place at an important time: Brown spent his first decade in television at Revue Studios during the period when that independent company, a part of the MCA empire, bought Universal Studios and grew into the biggest behemoth in television production.  Most of the production office staff at Revue were movie veterans, with careers dating back almost to the silent era.  (I interviewed one longtime Revue assistant director, Willard Sheldon, who got his DGA card in 1937).  But Brown was just out of college when he began working at Revue in 1953, and he was one of the few people I found who could tell me about the company’s inner workings.

But while Brown gave me some useful background, my attempt to interrogate him for a longer oral history was basically disastrous.  Generous with his time but also modest and circumspect, Brown answered my questions with little detail or embellishment.  If he had anything negative to say about anyone he ever worked with, those stories went with him to his grave.

As a UCLA student, Brown had no thought of entering the movie business until he became friendly there with members of Alan Ladd’s family, and switched to a major in film.  A mailroom job at MCA led to his promotion to second assistant director in late 1955.  Brown’s duties in that capacity included “paperwork, doing all the chasing and setting the background.  Getting actors out of their dressing rooms, getting extras onto the set.”  A junior administrator without an office, Brown would grab a table on the set and make out the next day’s call sheets by hand.

Brown didn’t say so in our interviews, but he must have been viewed as something of a wunderkind at Revue, where his professional advancement happened quickly.  He was promoted to first assistant director within a year (now, his primary duty was working with extras to stage the background action), and began to land some choice assignments on the studio’s series.  Brown went the extra mile to help the directors to whom he was assigned:

In the early days, when there were quite a few directors coming out from live television in New York and had been used to using three or four cameras, sometimes single cameras really kind of threw them in terms of how to stage and how to use a single camera.  So a lot of times I’d take a director home and have dinner at my house and then sit down and go through the script with them and try to help advise him how to use a single camera.  And the directors who were coming out of film were used to having more money and a bigger budget, more time to shoot.  So I would try to guide them.

Often in Hollywood, but especially at the budget-conscious Revue, directors often viewed their ADs and production managers as the enemy, as spies for the production office.  I got the sense that Brown, although loyal to the front office, succeeded by positioning himself as more of an ally to his directors than many of his older, more jaded colleagues were willing to do.

Brown worked on most of the early Revue shows at least a few times as a first assistant: The Restless Gun, M Squad, Johnny Staccato, Riverboat, Checkmate, Laramie.  But he was assigned most often to the studio’s dramatic anthologies, which he thought were “treated more as the A-list because of the casting, the producers, and the writers,” and to the long-running western Wagon Train.

On Wagon Train Brown became friendly with Ward Bond, and observed a falling-out between Bond and co-star Robert Horton as the latter sought to get out of his contract and leave the series.  “Bond was a wonderful, warm person.  Gruff on the outside.  Demanding, but not unfairly demanding.  I think he felt as if Horton wanted abandon ship, and he was the skipper,” Brown said.

Of the Revue anthologies, Brown worked most often on The General Electric Theatre, whose host was Ronald Reagan.  “He always came on the set and had four or five jokes he wanted to tell everybody before he went to work,” Brown remembered of Reagan.

Brown’s favorite directors were John Ford, who he assisted on episodes of The Jane Wyman Theatre and Wagon Train, and Alfred Hitchcock.  Brown supplanted Hilton Green as Hitchcock’s first assistant of choice on his eponymous series, and followed Hitchcock to The Birds and Marnie as well.  (Ford also asked Brown to assistant direct a feature for him, The Long Gray Line, but Brown was unavailable.)  More than any of the rank-and-file episodic directors he worked with, Brown was impressed by Ford’s and Hitchcock’s effortless command of their sets.  “They were the best teachers I ever had,” he said.

After leaving Revue, Brown moved briefly to Four Star Productions (where he worked on Honey West and Amos Burke, Secret Agent) and then to Paramount (The Brady Bunch, The Odd Couple, Longstreet).  At Revue, Brown had directed some second units, including a batch of San Francisco exteriors for Checkmate, as well as Robert Horton’s outdoor screen test for Wagon Train and many of Hitchcock’s and Reagan’s introductions for their respective shows.  That experience led to his own desultory directing career, which consisted mainly of assignments that fell to him when another director dropped out.  Brown also spent a few years directing television commercials (for Sears, AT&T, Dove Soap, Chevrolet, and Maxwell House’s late sixties “my wife” campaign), and briefly considered transitioning into a full-time career as a director.

“I thought about it seriously,” Brown said, “but I had a wife and four children, and financially it was too big a risk.  I was working fifty-two weeks a year and begging for time off in production, and as a director, starting out, I knew it was going to pinch financially.”

Instead, Brown became a line producer, with credits on Joe Forrester, The Quest, Dallas, and a number of made-for-television films.  He retired in 1992, following an unpleasant experience on the telefilm Danielle Steel’s Secrets.  But, as was his way, Brown would never tell me exactly what went wrong on that show.

When I launched the Classic TV History website three years and change ago, one of the exclusive pieces that debuted there was my personal, subjective, opinonated list of the one hundred greatest American television episodes of all time.  Immodestly, I thought the article included some pretty good short-form writing, and it certainly inspired some lively discussion in the comments here.

But there was one problem: I only wrote about fifty television episodes.  The idea was that this would be a list to grow on, one to which I would add over my, and the website’s, lifetime.  I explained that in the introduction but I guess it didn’t register, or else people really want the whole hundred when they’re promised a hundred of something, because occasionally I still get e-mails asking, “Where’s the rest?”  (Or, “Hey dumbass, your list only has fifty shows on it.”)  In truth, I had another ten or so episodes that I had planned to add to that page at some point, but I never got around to it.  For the rest, readers would to have to wait until I got around to seeing, well, every television show ever made.  Not that I have a life or anything, but that’s still going to take awhile.

Then it hit me that the solution to this problem was the solution to more or less everything these days: blogify it.  So from now on, as I discover new episodes that belong in the canon, I’ll write about them here first, and eventually archive them on the 100 Episodes page.  Without further ado, number fifty-one in a series.

 

Gordon Forbes steps out onto a window ledge and threatens suicide unless his wife is brought to him.  Only one problem: when private eye Honey West goes to pick her up, she finds that Mrs. Forbes has been shot dead.  This episode represents a wistful choice, because Honey West is one of those “classic” television shows that was never very good.  Most of the scripts were written by journeymen, and the stories and characters are cartoonish and silly.  The producer, Aaron Spelling, liked to leer at the ladies when the gaze, and the violence, was directed against them; see Burke’s Law (from which Honey West was a spin-off) and Charlie’s Angels.  But when he was handed a female protagonist, Spelling turned prude and made the show a live-action cartoon that would have fit in just fine on Saturday morning.  Only in the series’ pilot, written by Columbo creators William Link and Richard Levinson and directed by Walter Grauman, do we get a glimpse of Honey as she was meant to be: dangerous, sexy, chic.  Link and Levinson returned twice – fittingly, for the final episode – and arguably topped themselves with their final script, despite the punctuation error in the title.  The dialogue in “Eerie, Airy” is sophisticated, the pace fast, the stakes life-or-death, and the twist ending devilishly clever.  If U.N.C.L.E. fans pine for an alternate history where Batman kept the camp to itself, then I’ll take a Honey West led by L & L.

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