February 27, 2013
Her father played the organ to accompany the silent The Phantom of the Opera at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. She watched Howard Hughes filming miniature dogfights for Hell’s Angels in a lot behind her house. The “big sister” who showed her around campus when she started at Hollywood High was Lana Turner. Orson Welles hypnotized her in his magic act at the Hollywood Canteen. Gerry Day, native daughter of Los Angeles, child of Hollywood, and a fan who parlayed her love of the movies into a career as a radio and television writer, died on February 13 at the age of 91.
A 1944 UCLA graduate, Day got her start as a newspaper reporter, filing obits and reviewing plays for the Hollywood Citizen News. A radio writing class led to spec scripts, and Day quickly became swamped with assignments for local Los Angeles programs: The First Nighter; Skippy Hollywood Theater; Theater of Famous Players. The transition to television was natural, and Day became a regular contributor to the half-hour anthologies that tried, anemically, to ape the exciting dramatic work being done live in New York. Frank Wisbar, the expatriate German director, taught her how to write teleplays for his Fireside Theater, and then Day moved over to Ford Theater at Screen Gems, working for producer Irving Starr.
A gap in her credits during the late fifties reflects a year knocking around Europe, drifting among movie folk. Back in the States, Gerry’s mother was watching television, writing to her daughter that she’d like these new horse operas that had sprung up: Rawhide, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train. Ruthy Day meant that her daughter would enjoy watching them, but of course Gerry ended up writing them instead.
A city critter who loved horses and yearned to be a rancher, Day was fated to collide with television’s glut of Westerns. In 1959 she connected with Howard Christie, the genial producer of Wagon Train, who gave her a lot of leeway to write what she wanted (and used her to doctor other scripts beyond the seven or so she’s credited on). Her other key relationship was with Richard Irving, producer of the comedic Western Laredo. Day loved doing the oaters: the light-hearted romp Here Come the Brides; The High Chaparral, with its Tucson location; Tate; Temple Houston; The Virginian; Big Valley; The Outcasts; finally, fittingly, Little House on the Prairie.
Although she specialized in Westerns, Day wrote in all genres, and notched credits on some respectable dramas: Medical Center; My Friend Tony; Judd For the Defense. Peyton Place was not a particularly agreeable experience, nor was Marcus Welby (puckishly, she took a male pseudonym, “Jon Gerald,” for her episode); but Dr. Kildare and Court Martial were treasured memories. It was for Court Martial, a forgotten military drama, that she wrote her favorite script, a euthanasia story called “Judge Them Gently.”
As for the name: It wasn’t that her parents wanted a boy. It’s that there were venerated Southern family names to be preserved, and so the little girl became Gerald Lallande Day. It fit the tomboy she grew into, even though there were draft notices from the Marines and invitations to join the Playboy Club that had to be gently declined.
Gerry lived with her parents for most of her adult life, in an old bungalow in the heart of Hollywood that – apart from the traffic blasting past the tiny lawn on busy Fairfax Avenue – hadn’t changed much since her father bought it in 1937. Gerry already had cancer when I looked her up there in 2007, although it was in remission and she was feeling peppy. When I first dropped by, Gerry was wearing a pair of white slacks that Dan Dailey had picked out for her – Dan Dailey, the song-and-dance man who died in 1978.
The reason Dan Dailey had been Gerry’s personal dresser back in the day was that for a time Gerry wrote with a partner, the actress Bethel Leslie, who was Dailey’s romantic companion toward the end of his life. Day was good at writing for women, and managed on a few shows to write parts for her favorite actresses – Barbara Stanwyck, Vera Miles, and Bethel, who starred in an African Queen knockoff that Day wrote for her on Wagon Train. Day found out that Leslie was working on a memoir, and thought she had talent. They began writing together, on shows like Bracken’s World, Matt Helm, the new Dr. Kildare and the new Perry Mason, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, Barnaby Jones. On her trips out from New York, Leslie lived in Gerry’s studio. They would split up the work: Gerry wrote in the mornings, Bethel in the afternoons, then they meshed the work together. For two years, they were staff writers together on the daytime soap The Secret Storm. “For our sins,” said Day, who detested the executive producer so much that she wouldn’t utter his name.
Day’s love for horses led her to the track. She was an unofficial bookie for the Wagon Train clan, and eventually a part owner of a racehorse, which led her into a variety of adventures that would’ve made great subplots on David Milch’s racetrack opus Luck. A devout Catholic, Day became a Eucharistic minister in her church; she also raised foster children and supported equestrian causes. And remained ever under the spell of the movies. “The other night,” she told me during my first visit, “I stayed up late to watch Rio Grande. Talk about your romance, between John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. That was a really good film . . . .”
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.
October 17, 2012
Lined up on the shelves of the library where I work are a number of television Westerns from Timeless Media, discs that I haven’t purchased (yet) and that Netflix doesn’t carry. Recently I got around to taking home a stack of episodes from the first through the third seasons of Wagon Train, where I still have a lot of gaps.
Everything I’ve written about Wagon Train so far has been pretty critical. I was mixed on the rejuvenated seventh season, which expanded to ninety minutes and went to color, and I also mocked the laziness of some of the episodes immediately preceding that change. But a random survey of a dozen or so early segments reveals a better, cannier show. Wagon Train doesn’t rank among the best television Westerns, but it can fill up an oppressive August weekend quite effectively. What better actor to turn to than Ward Bond, with his grating, unmodulated donkey-bellow, to make himself heard over the full blast of my air conditioner?
Wagon Train started with a premise that was extremely well-designed, as simple and sturdy as a Conestoga. It had two lead characters, Major Seth Adams (Ward Bond) and Flint McCullough (Robert Horton), each of whom could serve as the center of a story or step into the background whenever the guest star of the week took up most of the screen time. That was important, because most Wagon Trains introduced a guest character in the very title (“The Joe Schmidlapp Story”), and the show was marketed on the basis of its big-name guest stars.
(This was a promise Wagon Train could deliver upon, initially, because it was produced by MCA, which until 1959 was also the biggest talent agency in town. It’s doubtful that Shelley Winters or Ernest Borgnine, both at the peak of their film careers in 1957, would have deigned to appear in a television Western – a brand new one, no less – without a little arm-twisting by Lew Wasserman or his dark-suited lieutenants. After MCA was forced to sell its agency business, Wagon Train’s guest stars became slightly less stellar, although they still comprised the top actors working in television.)
Adams and McCullough were modular leading men, versatile moving parts that could be plugged into a variety of different places. If Adams remained tethered to the train, McCullough, a scout who rode ahead looking for trouble, could roam about and stumble into adventures of almost any sort. Most dual-lead Westerns had interchangeable characters – the stage drivers of Stagecoach West, the rest stop minders of Laramie – but Wagon Train was conceived from the start to alternate between “home” and “away” stories.
Think about what a useful blueprint that is, from every point of view. The writers could tell almost any kind of Western story they could think of, without being constrained by the trail setting or the cumbersome pack of settlers in the train. The two stars could minimize their screen time and avoid the fatigue that plagued actors who carried a whole show on their backs (although that didn’t spare Ward Bond a fatal heart attack in 1960). Shooting on multiple episodes could overlap if necessary. And the audience was treated to a much greater variety of faces and settings than on a typical weekly series.
The Flint McCullough episodes remind me of the “off-campus” event episodes that serial dramas would try decades later. The West Wing and ER, especially, liked to send a main character – John Carter (Noah Wyle) or C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney) – off on his or her own once per season, to solve a personal problem or star in an action set-piece. It was Emmy-bait (Janney’s one-off with Donald Moffat as her ailing father is still one of my favorite television hours) but, more importantly, gave the audience a break from the intricate and potentially exhausting multi-character storylines. Wagon Train has the capacity to loosen up in the same way: just when I start to get tired of watching Ward Bond scream at the idiot settlers who wreak havoc on his train, there’s a breather where the smooth, likable Horton breezes through a less predictable adventure in a less familiar setting.
Wagon Train and ER might seem like apples and oranges, but in fact the Western series was one of the earliest dramas to take some tentative steps toward serialization. Most seasons began with an episode or two set in St. Louis, at the beginning of the train, and ended with one or two segments set at the end of the trail, in San Francisco. For instance, the third season opens with an episode (“The Stagecoach Story”) detailing the main characters’ return trip, by stage, from the West Coast to Missouri, following the preceding years’ train. The next episode (“The Greenhorn Story,” with the inevitable Mickey Rooney in the title role) covers the formation of the new train, with an emphasis on the naïve easterners’ adjustment to a new, harder way of life.
In the middle of the season, episodes do not follow a chronology – some of them span the course of months, and the physical progress from one to the next would probably zigzag back and forth across a map – but the viewer is not discouraged from thinking of each season’s various progatonists as members of the same train, with every individual story one panel in a mosaic of headaches thrust upon Major Adams over the course of a single year. The first season finale, “The Sacramento Story,” makes this assumption explicit; it is a combined sequel to three earlier episodes. (The series would continue to “check in” with popular characters, bringing Borgnine back in the second season premiere to reprise his role from the pilot, “The Willy Moran Story,” and revisiting the young lovers from “The Heather and Hamish Story” a year later in “The Last Circle Up” – albeit with both roles recast.) Since Wagon Train was never truly serialized, I tend to view its unusual commitment to beginning and ending at opposite ends of the trail as less about continuity than variety. In other words, it was an excuse to plant a few episodes in an urban setting instead of amid the monotonous plains.
In its willingness to make each episode as different from the others as the format would bear, Wagon Train became porous enough to allow for auteurism, among both its writers and directors. I mentioned few of these cases the last time I wrote about Wagon Train, and I’m still uncovering more of them. What to make of Jean Holloway, who wrote both the dull “Stagecoach Story” and the lively, appealing “Greenhorn Story”? Somewhere in the middle, in terms of quality, falls “The C. L. Harding Story,” a “haircut” of Lysistrata in which a muckraking reporter (Claire Trevor) leads the women of the train in a general strike. It’s tempting to read something into the fact that this very safe excursion into pre-feminism comes from the pen of one of the show’s two regular women writers, and probably much too cheap. Sometimes the absence of a strong voice is itself revealing: “The Cappy Darrin Story,” with Ed Wynn as a sea captain who takes the term “prairie schooner” a bit too literally, was written by Stanley Kallis, a veteran production man who penned only a handful of scripts. There’s an incongruous fantasy sequence, in which Cappy and his young grandson (Tommy Nolan) fight off some pirates, that rouses journeyman director Virgil W. Vogel from his slumber to try his hand at some dutch angles (even more incongruous in the world of Wagon Train). These dead ends take me back to the Western’s long-standing showrunner, Howard Christie, who seems to have favored the rather cloying tone – light at heart but somehow leaden – that “The Cappy Darrin Story” shares with many other segments.
Then there’s “The Ruth Owens Story,” one of two early episodes directed by the great Robert Florey (Murders in the Rue Morgue; The Beast With Five Fingers). This one is set mostly at night and includes many bold close-ups of actors, often in profile, framed against total blackness. Its expressionistic imagery – the frame grabs assembled below illustrate only a few of the Florey’s bold compositions – doesn’t resemble any other Wagon Train I’ve seen or, indeed any other television episode this side of The Twilight Zone.
August 3, 2011
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.
October 13, 2009
Last month, writing about Wagon Train, I advanced the theory that long-running series sometimes wound their way into strange tangents that only a combination of ratings invulnerability and creative fatigue could explain. Now that all of Wagon Train’s seventh and penultimate season has been released on DVD, alongside a selection of episodes from all the others, there is ample opportunity to study that phenomenon in practice.
By its sixth season, Wagon Train had experienced the sudden death of one lead, Ward Bond, and the departure of the other, Robert Horton, to pursue other opportunities (mostly dinner theater, as it worked out). The actors who replaced them were not stars. Veteran supporting player John McIntire (then best known as the sheriff in Hitchcock’s recent hit Psycho) became the new wagonmaster, and blond ex-movie Tarzan Denny Miller took over as the train’s scout. I guess NBC figured that the real attraction was the guest stars, although by 1962, Wagon Train wasn’t even spending much money on those. Judging by the evidence on the screen, Wagon Train barely had enough money to get a completed film in the can. Episodes routinely opened with stock footage montages, overlaid with meaningless narration by McIntire, in a blatant move to pad their length. In one case, this drivel runs for a full six minutes before the show gets around to an actual storyline. I’m convinced that something so shockingly lazy could get on the air only in a “flyover show” – one so unhip and purely commercial that none of the network or studio executives in charge actually watched it.
In other words, after five years, Wagon Train was a case study of a show that had outlived every reason to endure other than ratings. Occasionally this creative exhaustion led to fascinating oddities like “The Abel Weatherly Story,” a January 1963 episode with a Twilight Zone-like flavor in which a shipwreck survivor (J. D. Cannon, very good) may or may not be haunted by the ghost of an artist he killed some years before. Robert Yale Libott’s script takes place, variously, in a New England whaling city, on a ship and then a deserted island, and finally in a small Kansas town – everywhere, in other words, except on the wagon train. McIntire and Miller do not appear at all; Cannon must make do with the show’s bit players as his interlocutors. I wonder how Wagon Train’s loyal audience reacted that week, confronted as they were with neither of the show’s stars, and nothing resembling its original premise.
Yuck: Art Linkletter and friends in “The Sam Darland Story.”
I enjoyed “Abel Weatherly” for its sheer strangeness, but a more typical example of Wagon Train’s sixth year was the preceding week’s outing, “The Sam Darland Story.” Sam Darland, played by Art Linkletter in a disastrous bit of stunt casting, is an evangelical layman who attempts to settle a ghost town, in hostile Indian territory, with no one other than a band of young orphaned boys. The one spinster (played by Nancy Reagan!) who ventures that the children should be removed from Sam’s care and adopted by the families in the wagon train is treated an antagonist rather than a voice of sanity. Religiosity abounds and, needless to say, a modern audience could not watch this show and view Sam as anything other than a deranged pederast.
In 1963, in an effort to imitate the successful The Virginian, Universal expanded Wagon Train from the sixty minutes it could barely fill to a whopping ninety, and began to film the show in color. Robert Fuller, fresh off the studio’s cancelled Laramie, joined the show as a rotating star, effectively demoting Scott Miller back to sidekick. The same production team, led by Howard Christie and comprised of a small pool of regular freelance writers (Norman Jolley, Steven Ritch, Gene L. Coon, Allen H. Miner) and directors (William Witney, Virgil W. Vogel, Miner), remained the same as during the previous season. There was no reason to hope that the changes in length and hue might give Wagon Train a shot in the arm, but somehow – and to my considerable relief, because the DVDs contain all thirty-two of these things – it did.
To skip straight to the top, Wagon Train produced one undeniable masterwork during its supersized year. This is “The Robert Harrison Clarke Story,” which features Michael Rennie as a master hunter (with a Sikh attendant, played by an unrecognizable Henry Silva) who tags along with the train in search of American game. Clarke hunts for sport, and the cowhands’ mechanical methods of rounding up cattle and slaughtering them for sustenance sicken him; at the same time, the westerners are put off by Clarke’s exoticism and veddy British hauteur. Brian Keith takes a small part as a world-weary cavalry scout, and his presence is a mystery until some of the parties end up trapped in a ruined fort, under siege by Indians. As this group contemplates its limited options, Gene L. Coon’s script turns into a thoughtful study of courage in the face of death. Clarke and the Americans, represented by Keith’s taciturn Sergeant Galt, come to accept their differences once they realize that they share a kind of Hawksian stoicism and masculine competence. At first Coon aligns our sympathies against the unbearably arrogant Clarke, but then he gradually redeems the character; it is Clarke’s fancy hunting rifle, seemingly useless on the rough-and-tumble frontier, which fires the shot of salvation.
John McIntire, Robert Fuller, and Michael Rennie in “The Robert Harrison Clarke Story.”
Coon, best known as one of the producers of Star Trek, was one of the finest writers of westerns during the fifties and sixties, and sort of a secret weapon for Wagon Train (even though he also claims credit for “Clyde,” the unsuccessful comedy that I mocked in my earlier post). Coon also wrote the seventh season’s premiere, “The Molly Kincaid Story,” which stars Carolyn Jones as a white woman reclaimed from captivity among the Indians. The story is familiar, but Coon treats the subject with a startling toughness, beginning with the gruesome facial scarring that Molly suffered during her ordeal.
After Coon, Wagon Train’s other noteworthy auteur was Allen H. Miner, one of the few freelance writer-directors to work as a hyphenate on a multitude of fifties and sixties shows without ever creating his own. (Douglas Heyes and John Meredyth Lucas, both overlooked talents, were among the others.) Miner’s segments tend to start off with a catchy premise and then lose their way, either through a gradual dissipation of narrative tension or a sharp left turn into conventionality. In “The Sam Pulaski Story,” Miner stages some effective comedy by dropping a trio of Runyonseque Brooklyn toughs into the old west, but the fun stops as soon as an element of genuine menace is introduced. “The Kitty Pryer Story” begins as a dark, perverse love triangle, then shifts into a more conventional tale of lovers (Diana Hyland and Bradford Dillman, both superb) on the run. Miner also wrote and directed the season finale, “The Last Circle Up,” which nostalgizes the camaraderie of the wagon train and suggests (without really explaining why) that the settlers may fall upon each other now that they’ve arrived at their destination. John Ford, in his westerns, often addressed these notions of community versus individualism, but Miner does not know what to do with them.
Some of the other ninety-minute segments work because of an inspired guest turn. Ronald Reagan, in one of his final acting roles, is surprisingly good as an army officer torn between his professional responsibilities and his duty to his alcoholic wife in “The Fort Pierce Story.” Peter Falk, marshalling a steely restraint absent from his Columbo-era persona, faces off against McIntire after leaving the wagonmaster for dead to save his brother’s life in “The Gus Morgan Story,” an episode that espouses an admirable commitment to reason over vengeance and anger. Even some of the failures are bizarre enough to hold one’s interest for an hour and a half. “The Widow O’Rourke Story,” for instance, casts Broadway star Carol Lawrence as an elderly Chinese woman who runs her western plantation with an iron fist; flashbacks, in which Robert Fuller assumes a second role as the red-headed sailor who purchased her from slavers, explain how she ended up so far from home.
Carol Lawrence and Robert Fuller in “The Widow O’Rourke Story.”
None of the ninety minute episodes that I’ve seen so far proselytizes as blatantly as “The Sam Darland Story.” But Jesus does make a cameo in enough of them to make me wonder if Christie had a message to send, and no qualms about using a wagon train instead of Western Union. “The Michael Malone Story,” written by my friend Gerry Day (who is in fact a devout Catholic), chronicles a priest’s crisis of faith without ever contemplating that the priesthood might not be right for him. (Personally, I was rooting for Michael Parks and Joyce Bulifant, one of television’s stranger romantic pairings, to blow off those vows and get it on.) “The Whipping,” bearable only due to Martin Balsam’s sensitive performance as a self-hating drunk, builds its story around the assertion that atheism and alcoholism are morally equivalent. (Faith and sobriety, we are told, are also interchangeable). The story’s climax contains an unambiguous miracle which, somewhat atypically for television, does not bother to offer an alternate, earthly interpretation of the events. At least the writer, Leonard Praskins, had the courage of his convictions.
That may sound like I’m anti-religion – and I am. But I’m capable of enjoying programs that examine faith with respect and intelligence, and from more than one point of view. Wagon Train does not take this approach; it simply turns preachy now and again. Commentators who actually believe we have a “liberal media” ignore not only the underlying truth that our media companies are all controlled by wealthy conservatives, but that there have always been popular television shows which espouse a semi-overt, pro-religious agenda. This is just as true today (this decade’s Joan of Arcadia was especially obnoxious) as it was in the era of Wagon Train. And then there’s the “new” Battlestar: Galactica. Watching the series’ finale this year, I was bemused to discover that the answer to many of that show’s long-running mysteries was, in essence: God(s) did it.
Continuing on with the third season of Ironside, one of my favorite undemanding popcorn shows of its era, I find it harder than ever to ignore the budgetary constraints that are so obvious on screen. Universal was always cheap, even going back to Wagon Train; those ninety-minute shows cut back and forth between outdoor locations and unconvincing soundstage “exteriors” in the same scene, with complete indifference to the jarring lack of resemblance between the two. But it wasn’t until 1969 or 1970 that the studio’s legendarily penny-pinching production department really clamped down, hobbling the efforts of even the most creative or defiant producers. Except for some second unit shooting, I don’t think Ironside left the backlot once during the whole season.
The nadir is “Good Will Tour,” a romance in which Eve (Barbara Anderson) gives a visiting prince (Bradford Dillman, sporting a stillborn mittel-European accent) a lengthy rear-projection tour of San Francisco. It’s a decent if slight script by another writer friend, the late Norman Katkov, but why on earth would the producers commission such a location-dependent story? Ironside overlapped with The Streets of San Francisco for three years of its original run (on the same night of the week), and I can’t understand how the contrast with the actual Bay Area locations of Quinn Martin’s superior cop drama didn’t get Ironside laughed off the airwaves.
On the other hand, I can report that Ironside returned partly to form in the latter half of its third season, offering a few of the traditional cop stories that distinguished its first two years. One such episode is “Programmed For Danger,” in which Ironside and undercover singleton Eve go up against a dating service operator cum serial molester (slick Roger Perry, well cast) who uses a punch-card computer to select his victims. Along with the computer, True Boardman’s script places an odd emphasis on gadgets like Ironside’s telephone answering machine and the portable cassette player that Perry carries along on his attacks. Did you have something you wanted to say about modern technology, Mr. Boardman? The message was clearer in that Twilight Zone where Richard Haydn gets taken out by a homicidal electric razor.
Also during my staycation I pulled down a pair of memoirs that had been gathering dust on the bookshelf for a couple of years: Richard L. Bare’s Confessions of a Hollywood Director (Scarecrow, 2001) and John Rich’s Warm Up the Snake: A Hollywood Memoir (University of Michigan Press, 2006). Bare and Rich (insert name joke here) were two of the very top television directors of the sixties. Their books complement each other in a rather amusing way.
Richard Bare directed the pilots for Cheyenne and 77 Sunset Strip, thereby launching both the western and detective cycles that swelled the coffers of Warner Bros. and ABC in the late fifties; he later helmed nearly every episode of another certified classic, the subversive Green Acres. John Rich directed the first three years of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the first five of All in the Family. Before James Burrows, he was the undisputed king among sitcom directors. At his peak, Rich could command huge fees just for consulting on finished pilots and pointing out what was wrong with them. Rich’s brief association with Gilligan’s Island amounted to little more than that but, according to Warm Up the Snake, Sherwood Schwartz rewarded him with a ten per cent ownership of the series.
Rich has given a lot of interviews about Dick Van Dyke and All in the Family, but even if you’ve read or heard them already, his book offers a concise, revealing portrait of both series from a director’s point of view. Rich’s stories about shows with which he is less often associated, like Gunsmoke and MacGyver, have even more value. Unfortunately, Warm Up the Snake is padded with a lot of really stale jokes and anecdotes that have little to do with Rich’s own career, and those will be old news for most readers. There’s a whole chapter devoted to explaining odd industry terms like “M.O.S.” and the “Abby Singer shot,” and when Rich finally explains his title, it’s not exactly a gutbuster. (In fact, Walter Grauman, another veteran director, told me a much funnier story about defrosting a snake for a TV scene, which I will share one day.) Rich and Bare even recount one of the same old Hollywood jokes, about the director who ordered a crowd of spear carriers to “Lunge!” and instead the whole company went to lunch. But Rich says the director in question was Michael Curtiz, while Bare fingers Cecil B. DeMille!
Rich’s prose has an impersonal, smoothed-over feel to it, and he includes hardly anything about his childhood or non-professional life. The closest he comes to a confessional tone is a good-natured admission that he sometimes wielded a bad temper on the set. (He once broke his foot by kicking a chair during an All in the Family table read.) I found Rich’s reticence particularly disappointing, because I would haved liked to know more about his older brother, David Lowell Rich, a director of television dramas who did some fine work on M Squad, Route 66, and Kraft Suspense Theater. David Lowell Rich retired to my home town of Raleigh and, while I was in college, he drove me crazy by turning down repeated requests for an interview. After I sent him (without being asked) some tapes of his rarer shows, Rich thanked me and finally agreed to a meeting – but then died before my next trip back to Raleigh. I have heard, from several sources, that the Rich brothers did not get along, and that they were not on speaking terms for much of their adult lives. So I guess I’m not surprised that David receives nary a mention in John’s autobiography.
In contrast to Rich’s approach, Confessions of a Hollywood Director focuses mainly on Richard Bare’s personal life. He’s still in film school (at my alma mater, USC) on page 100, and when he gets to Green Acres around page 290, Bare has only a handful of anecdotes to tell. That may make the book sound as dull as unbuttered toast and, indeed, I wish Bare had chosen to share more about his contributions to Maverick and The Twilight Zone and The Virginian. But Bare’s memoir is so breezy and detailed, and his enthusiasm for old friends and childhood shenanigans so infectious, that I thoroughly enjoyed it. A Modesto native, Bare (whose childhood friends included George Lucas’s father!) was a true Zelig of the California coast, who stumbled into amusing encounters with everyone from Walt Disney to Dwain Esper to Langston Hughes to Marilyn Monroe.
Richard Bare is still with us, and his name made the rounds on the internet recently because his last birthday, on August 12, was alleged by many sources to be his one hundredth. Except that when I chatted briefly with Bare ten years ago, he insisted that he was actually born in 1913, and even named the reference book (Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia) in which he felt the inaccurate date had originated. Bare expressed anger at the error, because he felt it had cost him work toward the end of his career.
At the time, I was convinced. But Confessions of a Hollywood Director gives no birthdate for Bare, and his narrative remains a bit, well, slippery on the subject. At one point Bare claims that he was nineteen in 1934, and a subsequent mention of his age also supports a 1914 or 1915 birth. If Bare was willing to cheat his age forward a little in the book, could he have been fibbing to me as well? In the book Bare states that Julio Gallo, the winemaker, sat next to him in an algebra class at Modesto High School. Gallo was born in March 1910, so either he was an unusually slow math student, or . . . well, with all due respect to Mr. Bare, let’s just say that I’d welcome a peek at his driver’s license.
September 15, 2009
“It’s a hippie wagon, and it’s real far out”: Ironside joins the post-Woodstock era (“Eye of the Hurricane,” 1969)
What did people do back in the years before someone invented the term staycation? Personally, I passed the dog days of summer lounging around, reading, and watching old TV shows, just as I do now. But I didn’t have such a handy term for it back then.
I had to send away to Australia for the third season of Ironside, after Shout Factory conceded that it has given up releasing the series on DVD in the United States due to disappointing sales. I guess that means not enough consumers share my belief that the differently abled detective and his not-so-mod squad are, like, way hip, man.
For an already formulaic show, Ironside experienced a curious case of mission drift during its third year. Gone were the standard outings in which Chief Ironside (Raymond Burr) bogarted a high-profile homicide case and then either solved the mystery or played cat-and-mouse with the killer. Instead, the third season delivered a string of “very special episodes.” Ironside finds himself in jeopardy, kidnapped as a hostage in a prison break (“Eye of the Hurricane”). Or Ironside goes on a special mission, as when he’s appointed head of security for a political delegation in Red China (“Love My Enemy”).
The biggest change was that in the majority of episodes, Ironside or a member of his team gets drawn into the week’s case through a personal connection to the victim. If you were a San Franciscan and Chief Ironside owed you a favor, something bad was bound to happen to you, whether you were an old girlfriend (“Goodbye to Yesterday,” writer Sy Salkowitz’s sequel to his first season script “Barbara Who”), an aunt (“Alias Mr. Braithwaite”), a pupil (“Stolen on Demand”), a former schoolmate (“Ransom”), or an even older girlfriend (“Beyond a Shadow”). Apart from casting aspersions on the objectivity of the San Francisco Police Department, this new storytelling mandate gradually undermined the plausibility of the stories. And, let’s face it, a show about a man in a wheelchair who happens to be named Ironside needs to hold on to as much credibility as it can.
The same producers (Cy Chermak, Joel Rogosin, Douglas Benton, and Winston Miller) who oversaw the second season also managed the third. So either they were starting to get bored, or else they caved in to network pressure to fix what wasn’t broken. The surest sign of someone’s command for cosmetic change was the destruction of Ironside’s vehicle, a converted paddywagon (which was, I concede, ridiculous), in a fiery crash in the episode “Poole’s Paradise.” For the rest of the season, Ironside upgraded to a snazzier cream-colored van decked out with a whole lot of slatted wooden window shutters. I like to think this got him laid a little bit more often, and presumably the new wheels also garnered the show a few lines in that week’s TV Guide. Did audiences ever really care about stuff like that, even when they only had three channels to choose from?
Years ago I watched most of the Wagon Train episodes that Columbia House released on VHS, and found the show rather bland. Wagon Train was a traditionally written western with a medium-to-low budget, constructed mainly as a star vehicle for whatever A- and B-list guest stars MCA could seduce into headlining the episodes. Most of the segments were titled after the name guest’s role (“The Willy Moran Story,” etc.), which should give you an idea of the extent to which Wagon Train was willing to sideline its putative stars (ex-John Ford court jester Ward Bond and pretty-boy Robert Horton). Ideally, this backdoor-anthology format would have been an opportunity to emphasize character drama over the B-movie action that, say, Laramie or Tales of Wells Fargo favored. In practice, though, the stories usually took too long to find their way toward obvious, uplifting resolutions, and the show leaned more on Native Americans as stock villains than any of the other “adult” TV westerns of the late fifties.
But Wagon Train was a long-running series, and Columbia House focused just on the first two or three of its eight seasons. Shows which last that long sometimes evolve from one thing into another; CBS’s Rawhide, which was probably closest in content to Wagon Train than any other major TV western, also ran for eight seasons and went through some radical on- and off-screen changes during that time. Last year Timeless Media, the indie outfit with the keys to Universal’s tape vault, released two giant boxes of Wagon Train episodes in a typically eccentric fashion. The emphasis was on Wagon Train’s penultimate year, the only one shot in color and expanded to a weekly ninety minutes (in an effort to copy Universal’s 1962 hit The Virginian, which had begun to trounce Wagon Train in the ratings). But Timeless also rounded up a random grab-bag of segments from all the other seasons to complement the thirty-two ninety-minute Wagon Trains. Ordinarily this compilation would run afoul of my compulsive nature, but I took it as a way of setting out some trail markers to chart the direction the show took over the years.
I wish I could report that the results were something other than dire. But here’s how most evenings went. First I cued up an episode entitled “The Ah Chong Story.” Then I realized that Arnold Stang played the title character, and figured I’d need a Vicodin to get through that. So I skipped to the next episode, “Clyde,” which turned out to be a comedy about trail cook Charlie Wooster (Frank McGrath, a tenth-rate Walter Brennan) and the pet buffalo he shields from hungry settlers and Indians. The buffalo was so mangy that at first I mistook it for a pony draped with a woolly throw rug. I can’t remember now whether or not Clyde got eaten in the end, because by then I was having one of those occasional crises in which I become paralyzed by the question: Why again did I decide to specialize in early American television?