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TopBilled’s Essentials


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1 hour ago, TopBilled said:

Coming Up in January:

orphans

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January 1

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES (1934)

January 8

CHINA (1943)

January 15

THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS (1958)

January 22

POLLYANNA (1960)

January 29

ANNIE (1982)

I definitely look forward to Annie, because for some reason that movie really  impressed me. I am so not the type of guy that would normally be into  a movie like that so it  probably made the effect on me even more prominent.

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22 hours ago, Stallion said:

I definitely look forward to Annie, because for some reason that movie really  impressed me. I am so not the type of guy that would normally be into  a movie like that so it  probably made the effect on me even more prominent.

We plan the themes several months in advance, so we have time to track the films down if they are not widely available and to allow enough time to watch then review them.

This theme originated because Jlewis was interested in discussing ANNIE (1982) and I had just seen CHINA (1943) on YouTube, a film I found profoundly moving. I thought ANNE OF GREEN GABLES would nicely bookend with ANNIE and THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS seemed like an extension of CHINA. We decided to do this theme in January because it seemed like a good continuation of what we discussed in BRIGHT EYES with Shirley Temple playing an orphan.

However, we soon realized there were five Saturdays, which meant a fifth title would be needed. We ended up choosing POLLYANNA because we had previously reviewed TIGER BAY and we are both fans of Hayley Mills, or at least I am!

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Essential: ANNE OF GREEN GABLES (1934)

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TopBilled:

In 1934 RKO produced the first sound version of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic novel. The novel had initially been published in 1908 and was intended for all audiences (not just children). There had previously been a silent version made by Paramount in 1919 which Miss Montgomery felt was too ‘Yankee’– i.e., not Canadian enough.

In the silent film the title character was portrayed by Mary Miles Minter, acting opposite a very young Paul Kelly as her love interest Gilbert Blythe.

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Between 1908 and 1919, Montgomery wrote three sequels. The reading public couldn’t get enough of these adventures, featuring mischievous Anne with an ‘E.’ After RKO’s release, which the author liked, she wrote another sequel in 1936, Anne of Windy Poplars, which served as the basis for the studio’s cinematic follow-up in 1940. The same lead actress appeared in both films.

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Katharine Hepburn was under contract at RKO during the mid-30s and had just scored a triumph in another popular literary adaptation, LITTLE WOMEN. She coveted the role of Anne. But the part went instead to Dawn O’Day, born Dawn Paris, who in some form of press agentry, changed her stage name to Anne Shirley, the character she was portraying on screen. She would keep the name for the rest of her career.

Dawn O’Day as Anne Shirley was put in other coming-of-age stories by RKO. In most of these crowd-pleasing programmers, she would play a variation of Montgomery’s character, just with different names and addresses. These included CHASING YESTERDAY (1935) and M’LISS (1936)– a remake of a Mary Pickford hit– as well as CHATTERBOX (1936), all directed by George Nicholls Jr.

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In CHASING YESTERDAY, our plucky star was rejoined by Helen Westley and O.P. Heggie who had played Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, Anne’s middle-aged guardians. The premise of CHASING YESTERDAY had Heggie’s character meeting a teen girl, who was the daughter of an old flame and might be his biological child. But in Montgomery’s tale, the girl had no blood connection to her elders.

The 1934 production of ANNE OF GREEN GABLES is relatively short, clocking in at 78 minutes. It occasionally omits key episodes found in the novel. Most of the amusing vignettes are fleshed out in greater detail in a 1985 miniseries by writer-producer Kevin Sullivan.

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Sullivan’s miniseries earned an Emmy and was a lot more faithful to the original source material. It featured Canadian actress Megan Follows with Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth as the Cuthberts.

However, there’s something bucolic and charming about RKO’s Depression era offering. It should be admired for its simplicity, ironic grace and charm.

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Montgomery’s novel depicts harsh realities of life at the turn of the 20th century. For example, in later sections of the book, old Matthew dies and Marilla goes blind. Anne must sacrifice personal goals to help out on the farm, after being away at college. Also, Anne’s relationship with Gilbert causes considerable angst for Marilla. This is because Gilbert has a fairly improper backstory, which is only hinted at in the 1934 film due to the production code.

While Dawn O’Day makes a memorable Anne Shirley, one can’t help but wonder how Katharine Hepburn would have done in the role. Would she have repeated her Oscar victory from MORNING GLORY? Oh, I should mention that in the 1985 miniseries, Anne’s bosom friend Diana is played by the grand-niece of…you guessed it…Katharine Hepburn.

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Jlewis:

Anne Shirley plays…Anne Shirley in this 1934 adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s enormously popular teen novel of 1908. Actually the real actress’ name was Dawn O’Day but the publicity department liked the character name and it stuck with her for the rest of her career.

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George Nicholls Jr. is the director but the primary name that jumped out for me in the opening credits was Max Steiner doing some, but not all of, the music score here; this being the RKO phase of his career.

I had seen this once upon a time back in the last century pre-internet when AMC showed a lot of vintage RKO films pre-TCM, but not the sequel made six years later, ANNE OF WINDY POPLARS. I also recall other versions made for TV that I saw parts of as well but the earlier 1919 silent version, well received in its day, is sadly a lost film.

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Basic story: An orphan teenager of 14 (11 in the book) moves to a quaint country town in Prince Edward Island and graces the lonely lives of a brother and sister, Marilla (Helen Westley, a familiar face from SHOWBOAT and at least three Shirley Temple vehicles) and Matthew Cuthbert  (O.P. Heggie), neither of whom married and the latter suffers a major illness in the dramatic final reel of our story.

In between, Anne befriends another girl named Diana (Gertrude Messinger), whose mother (Sara Haden) causes much conflict with Anne at times. Also, Anne dates Gilbert Blythe (Tom Brown) despite his parents having a troubled past with the Cuthberts (his mother breaking Matthew’s heart).

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That is pretty much your story in a nutshell. I believe the printed source involves a great deal more but this movie version, obviously a follow-up to cash in on the same studio’s 1933-34 smash with LITTLE WOMEN (totally different story but same key market), that tries to get it all packed together within 78 minutes.

It is probably better suited to the TV miniseries format (as would be the case decades later), especially with the sequels in print. I personally would have preferred more material involving the Cuthberts during the transitional scenes of Anne’s relationship with Gilbert that involves her aging into a young adult.

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Much of the appeal of the books (including the sequels) has to do with the character being so strong willed and confident in herself. I was not clear on what occupation she was striving for when going away to school, since the whole career woman persona was still somewhat of a novelty in early 20th century mainstream juvenile fiction.

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Also I would have liked to have known more about her past, including what happened to her biological parents. Yet that is the nature of Hollywood treatments: focus on what is most important drama-wise. One added plus is that the adults are not presented as cardboard characters who can’t sympathize with teenagers; both performers playing the Cuthberts pull it off rather nicely, particularly Helen Westley as the huffy lady with a stern exterior but soft, sensitive interior.

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I enjoyed viewing this again but must admit I did get a trifle bored in spots, despite an impressive lead performance and lavish production values. It is a good movie, but I probably was expecting more happening based on very dim memories I had from decades ago.

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On 12/29/2021 at 12:40 PM, TopBilled said:

We ended up choosing POLLYANNA because we had previously reviewed TIGER BAY and we are both fans of Hayley Mills, or at least I am!

Yes, I am a fan of Hayley too. Among my favorites of hers is THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA multi-parter for TV's Masterpiece Theatre. Although most critics (and, I think, you too) favor POLLYANNA over THE PARENT TRAP, I do enjoy the latter more as a re-watch simply because it allowed her to be as ornery as she was in TIGER BAY... or shall I say twice as ornery as twins? I especially enjoy the great revenge scenes against Joanna Barnes' gold-digging Vicky. That one could potentially be tackled on some future date as part of a twins theme along with, say, THE PALM BEACH STORY, OUR RELATIONS (Laurel & Hardy version) and THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, among others.

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On 1/1/2022 at 1:31 PM, Jlewis said:

Yes, I am a fan of Hayley too. Among my favorites of hers is THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA multi-parter for TV's Masterpiece Theatre. Although most critics (and, I think, you too) favor POLLYANNA over THE PARENT TRAP, I do enjoy the latter more as a re-watch simply because it allowed her to be as ornery as she was in TIGER BAY... or shall I say twice as ornery as twins? I especially enjoy the great revenge scenes against Joanna Barnes' gold-digging Vicky. That one could potentially be tackled on some future date as part of a twins theme along with, say, THE PALM BEACH STORY, OUR RELATIONS (Laurel & Hardy version) and THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, among others.

Oh yes, I like the twins idea. We'll have to keep that one in mind for later...

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Essential: CHINA (1943)

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TopBilled:

Chinese-American relations changed considerably after 1945. But during WWII, the United States was politically allied with China against the Japanese. That alliance is in evidence in this Paramount classic from 1943.

Supposedly this was a project that Loretta Young was very passionate about doing. She had been following the news and was affected by reports of Chinese children that were orphaned during the war. It was part of her mission to bring their story to the screen.

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Miss Young had been under contract to 20th Century Fox until 1939, then began a multi-picture deal at Columbia Pictures. After the deal with Columbia ended in 1941, she became a freelancer. She was now in a position to choose scripts that mattered to her without facing studio suspension.

Her costar, Alan Ladd, was a Paramount contractee who had just broken through with the hit LUCKY JORDAN, in which he played a gangster. Studio bosses wanted to put him into more heroic roles, and this project seemed ideal for him as well as for Miss Young.

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During production the two performers did not always get along. Both seemed concerned about who would be perceived as the real ‘star’ of CHINA. There were occasional disagreements behind the scenes between them and director John Farrow, but I think that spiritedness helps infuse this drama with a bit more intensity and energy than it might otherwise have had.

The bottom line is that neither Young nor Ladd intended a career misstep. They both wanted the film to be a success and for them to come out on top, which is exactly what happened. In fact the box office success of CHINA led to the two stars reuniting for another picture the following year at Paramount (AND NOW TOMORROW, a much more melodramatic effort).

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I think what makes CHINA work is the perfect balance between action and “romance.” Yes, there is a bit of wartime jingoism involved, and modern eyes will no doubt see some of the race-related problems of the era, but it’s a conscientious story containing a lot of character-driven truths. The main message for viewers, then and now, is that we are in this thing together– especially when we have a common enemy to defeat.

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The film has an almost noir-like quality to it in the way that the scenes are lit and photographed, particularly the nighttime scenes. The violent episodes that occur– a rape, multiple murders and a climactic series of explosions– signify darker elements. It’s a harrowing story and not one that we might typically associate with Loretta Young, who usually appeared in feel-good motion pictures.

Despite the moving performance rendered by Miss Young and her Asian cast members, the film is subdued by the atrocities depicted on screen. But it does “feel good” in the sense that these Americans are fighting against threats to democracy and are making noble sacrifices. I would imagine viewers in 1943 came away with the knowledge that something was being done to make the world a better place. It’s a film about defending freedom and saving children from ruin.

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Jlewis:

One advantage of wartime films of this vintage is that they offered increased employment to Asian American performers more frequently than in years previous. It is nice seeing in the credits that begin our picture such names as Philip Ahn, Iris Wong, Sen Yung, Richard Loo and Beal Wong even though they are still supporting the main Caucasian stars Alan Ladd, Loretta Young and William Bendix.

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Not that I would say this vintage product of its time is completely in line with modern sensitivities. When Bendix’s character Johnny Sparrow saves an orphan Chinese boy, he is twice asked “what is that?” I guess such scenes were considered funny at the time, when society was more segregated in its audiences. In the early scenes, the boy who is dressed accordingly is given the pronoun “it” and Alan Ladd as David Jones even wants Johnny to “get rid of it.”

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Then again, his character is a cynical oil business man doing business with warring countries while his own nation is still neutral and we, as viewers, see how he changes his ways to be more sympathetic of others fighting a just human cause.

This is China fighting for its liberation with many roads leading to a Shanghai of 1941 that is occupied under the Japanese empire. Loretta Young is an American born and raised in China, Caroline or Carolyn Grant, who joins our boys in their touring truck. Her character is supposed to be the more socially progressive one than David, being a much loved teacher (namely English and Christian values and religion does figure into this a little). She stows away some of her students on David’s truck much to his dismay but also tells him that “They are very fine people.”

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Ok. I do have a lot of issues here, but I will restrain myself and stay focused on the film’s positive attributes, including the noble propaganda intentions directed towards a wartime ally of the United States. Of course, the enemy nation is abbreviated to just three letters, as was the custom of the times, and there is no holding back in revealing the kind of atrocities they are capable of committing. Atrocities are atrocities regardless of the country involved.

There is some unintentional humor in Victor Young’s orchestration. You always know when the Japanese are on screen simply by an ominous flag and equally ominous music. Subtly is not this film’s aim here. Cue the scene in which Japanese soldiers come across Chinese women at a farm and sexual assault is more than just hinted at…and, of course, they pay the price with David’s machine gun lead.

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The battle scenes are quite impressive, full of artillery fire and plane bombs recreated in graphic detail. Less convincing are the southwestern desert scenes that add a John Ford western look to what is supposed to be Asiatic terrain.

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This is a gun toting, action packed piece, adequately directed by John Farrow, but one I would have enjoyed far better at age 12 when I was more naive to this type of entertainment, being a fan of Tarzan adventures since Alan Ladd does some fun swimming scenes here. All is delivered in a tidy 79 minutes. Not that much of it has aged well.

The orphan in our story plays a relatively minor role. Sadly, the plight of Donald Duck is not a happy one. Likewise, Carolyn falls in love with David but his duty against the evil enemy prevents them from having any happily ever after.

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Essential: THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS (1958)

TopBilled:

I agree with those who say this film is too long, but it does contain some uplifting moments. Ingrid Bergman, as always, delivers an intensely personal and strong central performance. She’s playing real-life missionary Gladys Aylward, a woman that was eager to do the Lord’s work in China.

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Bergman the actress was a spiritually troubled woman off-camera who once sought friend Loretta Young’s counsel about the existence of an afterlife. No doubt Bergman’s public sufferings tested her faith, but she doesn’t let any of her actual feelings about organized religion get in the way of portraying Aylward in this picture.

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Miss Aylward was a British woman who did not look much like the Swedish woman bringing her story to life on screen. Aylward was also rather opinionated, and she voiced her displeasure with how the film turned out. She did not exactly like the liberties that 20th Century Fox took in adapting the biography that had been published about her. Her journey to China, which took her through Russia and Japan, was full of hardships not included in the movie.

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Most importantly Aylward devoted her adult life to improving conditions for others. She worked tirelessly on behalf of orphaned children, as well as ministering to convicted criminals. She did not have a man in her life, as seen in the movie. I suppose Hollywood thought a fictional romance was required to market the picture to audiences. As a result, Bergman’s version of Aylward falls in love with a half-Chinese man played by Curt Jurgens.

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The truth is that Gladys Aylward did not go off to marry anyone. After she had brought a group of orphans to safety during the war, she faced death threats by the communists in China who did not approve of her Christian proselytizing. When the war was over, she was forced to leave China and return to Britain. Later, she tried to return to China but was prevented by the Chinese government from re-entering the country. So she went to Taiwan to open a new school there, and focused on improving conditions for Taiwanese children. She lived the final years of her life in Taiwan without a husband.

Truth. It is the 6th happiness. The Chinese believe there are eight happinesses. Gladys Aylward’s school in China was called The Inn of the Eight Happinesses. Not The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. Once again Hollywood deviated from the facts. But thanks to the performances of Ingrid Bergman, Curt Jurgens, Robert Donat and the British-Chinese children featured in the film, we do get a deeply personal and moving story about the will of one person to make a difference in the lives of others.

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***

Jlewis:

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This is a pleasing companion piece to the previously reviewed CHINA, sharing a few plot elements…and also a few flaws…typical of older Hollywood productions. If made today, a Caucasian actor like Robert Donat would obviously not play a Chinese character. On the plus side, there is a large Asian supporting cast here even if fewer get credited on screen than in the former.

The scenery shot in Wales (UK) overall looks more convincing than the previously utilized Arizona and California scrubland.

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More importantly, America was not at war with Japan in 1958 as in 1943 and, even though both films depict that nation as an aggressor and invader, we merely see planes in attack rather than diabolically evil soldiers painted with broad brush strokes.

Mark Robson did a great job on this Gladys Aylward biopic, co-written by Alan Burgess from his book The Small Woman, making it into an expansive A-budget spectacular that cleverly integrates studio bound sets with the already mentioned Welsh scenery and elaborate recreations of the country in question. Overall I favored this 20th Century Fox CinemaScope trip to Asia better than the previous one we covered, THE RAINS OF RANCHIPUR. Also the soundtrack features Mandarin spoken alongside English and even some Russian in the early scenes as well, adding authenticity.

One complaint. At almost two and a half hours, it may not have been longer than other roadshows of the era, but it still felt long to me.

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Center piece and heart of the picture is Ingrid Bergman, a performer like Claude Rains whom I will watch in literally anything, even a laundry detergent commercial (not that either ever did one). Whether or not she resembled the famous British missionary (no, she didn’t) is irrelevant to me. She is emotionally expressive in her face at all times and we the viewers always feel like we are on her side.

Gladys Aylward (1902-1970) was a Christian missionary who, from what I learned, was not happy with the liberties that Hollywood scriptwriters took in telling her story. She was a pretty progressive missionary for her time and, as Ingrid plays her, seems open on screen to all religious beliefs; there is some dialogue here that I found interesting in which Gladys mentions Buddhism and other faiths as equal to her own.

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Horrified by some of the practices in the country she adopted such as beheadings in executions (graphically depicted here) and the binding of women’s feet, she fought against all injustices in her own way by learning the native language in order to get her ideas across and even becoming a Chinese citizen by law in 1936. In tune with our orphans theme, she became a foster mother to many, many children.

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Our story begins in 1930 when she saved all of her humble earnings as a housemaid  in England to make the great journey. Thoughtfully, we see how she is discouraged by naysayers (including Moultrie Keksall’s Dr. Robinson) and how difficult the journey was getting there with the Trans Siberian railway. In Yang Chen a.k.a. Yancheng, she helps set up a special inn for travelers, where food and spiritual guidance is offered, along with an older and very eccentric lady, also from England.

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Jeannie Lawson is wonderfully played with great gusto by Athene Seyler. Jeannie later dies in a violent scene and Gladys is forced to pull off her work partially alone.

Much of the climactic adventure in the final half hour or so involves her transporting many juveniles through the mountains by foot to the Shensi a.k.a. Shaanxi province where the Japanese had not taken control in 1938. By that time Gladys was judged a potential spy by the invading government and she was greatly worried that the people in her care might be in danger as a result.

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Our movie ends at this point of her career and does not cover the typhus she had to go through in Shensi or the set up of a new church, working with lepers, returning to England in 1947 for a extended period and ultimately her residing in Taiwan after the Communist revolution.

Other key characters appear as support and the performers are adequate in various degrees. Robert Donat did seem miscast but it should be noted that this was his final appearance before his death and he does well enough with it.

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Burt Keouk as Li has an interesting role as a prison revolt leader who aids Gladys in her work and perishes later in their on-foot evacuation. The children were all Chinese British citizens from a school in Liverpool from what I gather.

Curt Jurgens’ Captain Lin Nan is a Eurasian (Chinese and Dutch) officer who starts out as a pessimist encouraging her to go back to England but gradually morphs into some romantic interest of sorts. My guess is that 1950s scriptwriters fretted about unmarried women onscreen potentially being lesbians or something else, which I know is silly thinking on my part but, then again, not out of line with some of the McCarthy era thinking at the time.

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Reportedly the real Gladys was not happy with both his portrayal (since he was not mixed blood but was made that way to “date” her) and the romantic suggestions as well. Then again, we do not see any kissing on screen.

As usual, I should comment on the cinematography and music. Not sure how many were involved with the former but Freddie Young is the key supervisor in camera work and a few scenes here foreshadow his impressive widescreen high angle shots of large crowds in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. The orchestration composed by Malcolm Arnold is suitably slushy in a Max Steiner way, if also deliriously dated in the first scenes depicting China with a stock “oriental” melody that had already become passé by this time.

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Essential: POLLYANNA (1960)

TopBilled:

As I was researching the topic of orphans for this month’s films, one thing jumped out at me. It was the ‘fact’ that early 20th century literature about orphans tended to focus on little girls rather than little boys. Related to this is the idea that these poor little homeless girls (played on screen by the likes of Mary Pickford, Anne Shirley, Shirley Temple and Hayley Mills) are often named Ann(e) or some variation thereof.

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This week’s film is a Disney concoction from 1960 based on the classic children’s story by Eleanor Porter. ‘Pollyanna’ was first published in 1913 and like Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Canadian version ‘Anne of Green Gables,’ it spawned sequels, a silent film and sound film remakes. In this case, the word Pollyanna became part of the common vernacular, a synonym for someone who is idealistic or overly cheerful. You know the kind, the person who always says the glass is half full not half empty!

A key component of Porter’s tale is that the heroine would play what was called a glad game. This was done in attempts to find something to be grateful or happy about, despite less than perfect circumstances. While a bit contrived in spots, the use of the glad game in the book is an interesting exercise. Perhaps modern children would benefit from playing their own glad game today, in a world that is often brimming with hopelessness and sudden catastrophes.

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Mary Pickford had her defining role in the 1920 silent adaptation of Porter’s story. Pickford’s take on it clocks in at just under an hour. I have only seen excerpts of Pickford’s Pollyanna, but I would conjecture to say hers is the abridged version and leaves out many key episodes.

By comparison, the Disney version with Hayley Mills that was produced four decades later, seems overdone. At 134 minutes I find it simply too long and dragged out. It never loses an ounce of charm, but I did find my mind drifting on more than one occasion. I would think that today’s young generation with even shorter attention spans, would have trouble remaining focused for over two hours. This is a story that should be told in 90 to 100 minutes.

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The Disney production features a fine cast. Everyone knows that Miss Mills received a special Oscar for her performance, which was well-deserved and recently re-presented to her (I am sure she was glad). But the rest of performers deserve kudos, too. Pollyanna's stern aunt is played to perfection by Jane Wyman, demonstrating a brittle matriarch years before she gave us Angela Channing on Falcon Crest.

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We also have the effervescent Nancy Olson in a supporting role, before she would appear in other Disney pictures during the 1960s. Agnes Moorehead turns up as a witch-type character (pre-Endora), while Adolphe Menjou is seen in what would be his last feature film role. The most interesting casting, in my opinion, is Richard Egan known more for westerns, crime flicks and action adventure yarns. It’s nice to see him in more family friendly fare.

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Jlewis:

The scene I remembered best from a long time ago when I saw this was the very first shot before the opening credits. A boy with his bare bottom exposed to the camera, a sight you rarely see in children’s films,  swings into the old watering hole. I never quite understood Walt Disney’s obsession with bare bottoms, since quite a few more were exposed in the Silly Symphony cartoons of the 1930s and, of course, who can forget the winged Cupids using their bottoms to create a special heart in FANTASIA? He also incorporated plenty of spanking in his films as well, especially in the Donald Duck cartoons, but that is whole other topic we won’t get into here.

Point here…I think. I guess? My explanation: the little town of Harrington has a youthful innocence and fun that the adults in the community have yet to rediscover.

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That is, until the wealthiest lady running the community with her influence, Polly (Jane Wyman), takes custody of her British niece, Pollyanna (Hayley Mills), who was recently orphaned by the death of Polly’s brother, a minister. Gradually a change takes place over the community thanks to her, even though she keeps her clothes on at all times.

… and so does the rest of the community. Nobody but little boys take up nudism here, but the town’s adults do become “free” and happy in other ways…

First, the Reverend Paul Ford (Karl Malden) becomes less fire-and-brimstone in his sermons.

Mrs. Snow (Agnes Moorehead) is no longer sitting in bed moping about a possible funeral.

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Housekeeper Nancy (Nancy Olson) is finally able to get engaged to George (James Drury).

Jimmy Bean (Kevin Corcoran) gets adopted by eccentric don’t-touch-my-things Mr. Pendergast (Adolphe Menjou in his final film).

Aunt Polly herself finally realizes that the love she lost years ago has come back in the form of the good doctor Edmund Chilton (Richard Egan).

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Harrington puts up a sign at the train station that it has become a “glad town.” Pollyanna is all sunshine and rainbows, courtesy of the candle prisms she discovers in Pendergast’s home. Early on, she tells a story about wishing for a doll and getting crutches instead by accident but learned that there is something good in every situation. Later she wins a doll at the charity fair that is raising money for the local orphanage, something Aunt Polly is not happy about, but…in a twist of fate…she tries to retrieve her doll on the roof and…Oh darn! Better not spoil the story any further.

I love Hayley Mills. She is the best part of the picture and probably better at her role than even Mary Pickford was four decades earlier in another film adaptation (but I have to see that one in its entirety at some point) of Eleanor H. Porter’s bestseller.

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However this glossy production may not be for everybody. You must have some tolerance for sweetness and wholesomeness. Cue in shots of Hayley chumming down cake and later watermelon. There is not a whole lot of plot and action here, but it is a key Disney film that has enjoyed a cult reputation over the years. Leonard Maltin praised both the film and director David Swift a lot in 1973 in his book The Disney Films, stating “its sentiment is derived from natural situations and it never descends into bathos.” I guess I kinda agree, although it may still be a little too sentimental for some tastes.

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Essential: ANNIE (1982)

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Harold Gray, who originated the Little Orphan Annie comic strip in mid-1924, was a rightwing conservative who often used his famous creation to push his political views. He was not a fan of FDR or New Deal legislation; and controversially, he was opposed to child labor laws — feeling that juveniles became delinquents because they weren’t taught the value of hard work.

His daily comic strip featured examples of the rich who worked hard (Daddy Warbucks) as well as the many industrious lower-class laborers that Annie met on her various adventures. The adventures became more violent and more international in scope as the Depression years led into the second world war, followed by post-war threats of communism.

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One reason the strip was so successful with readers was its Dickensian quality. At its heart, Little Orphan Annie was about the struggles faced by a likable young heroine and her pals, told in a long-ranging serialized format. Gray helmed the strip from the mid-1920s until his death in the late 1960s. Amazingly, it continued with other writers and illustrators until 2010. During the 2010s Annie, Daddy and company would continue to appear in story arcs of the still-running Dick Tracy.

As I researched the origins of Little Orphan Annie, I learned some things that the creators of the late 1970s stage musical (the basis for the 1982 musical film) either did not know or just altogether ignored. Broadway has pretty much been run by liberals for a century, and director John Huston was probably the most left-leaning established Hollywood director you could find in the early 80s.

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The 1982 film version does not espouse Gray’s conservative rhetoric. His philosophies are largely absent, and this harmless and inoffensive kid-friendly offering with an abundance of song and dance has Annie befriending Franklin & Eleanor. I’m sure Gray turned over in his grave.

In the original comic strip, Daddy is married and his wife is quite a meanie. She is always sending Annie back to “The Home.”

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Sandy the dog does not turn up till later when Annie rescues him from a gang of abusive boys. Also, the kids do not always have happy endings — especially if Daddy is away. Remember this was Dickensian melodrama full of hardship, struggles and suffering.

The very beginnings of Little Orphan Annie can be traced all the way back to a poem from 1885, called ‘Little Orphant [sic] Annie’ by James Whitcomb Riley. She was based on someone that stayed with the Riley family, whose real name was Mary Alice. Mary Alice’s nickname was Allie, and the poem was intended to be called ‘Little Orphant [sic] Allie.’ A typesetting error at the publisher’s changed her name to Annie.

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There is a 1918 silent film starring Colleen Moore that can be considered the initial motion picture adaptation. Annie is treated cruelly in that one. To make matters worse, she loses the boy of her dreams (he dies serving in WWI). And she dies at the end, unmarried and alone.

Neither Harold Gray nor his successors had Annie ever adopted by Daddy. (This happens in the 1982 musical film.) Instead, Daddy Warbucks remained her ward all those years. She was not officially adopted until a Dick Tracy arc in the 2010s. By then, she’d had hundreds of wild adventures. At long last, she and Daddy made it legal and some happiness and stability was to be given to this well-known waif.

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Jlewis:

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As a kid, I read my share of comic strips and occasionally that included Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie. This series backtracks as far as 1924 and was at its peak during the Depression years and World War II, but still outlasted its creator who died fairly close to my time. Sometime in either 1978 or ‘79, I saw a filmstrip version (pictures shown on a screen with audio music accompanying) of the Broadway musical ANNIE that was loosely, very loosely, based on the comic strip characters.

The characters kept the same names but, instead of the story being a wild adventure like the kind that graced the Sunday newspapers, it was an OLIVER TWIST take of poor girl adopted by rich billionaire Oliver Warbucks.

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Although the strip began in 1924, the setting moved forward a decade to the dark Depression period in order to make her initial status at the orphanage more dramatic. The stage version was set mostly in late ‘32 and included a song criticizing President Herbert Hoover, while the movie version covered the spring and summer of ‘33 and just focused on Annie meeting FDR.

One thing I noticed about the Broadway version of 1976, featuring the musical talents of Charles Strouse, Thomas Maheen and Martin Charnin, is that the lead actress looked nothing like the comic strip character until after she gets the red curly perm in the final act. At least the Rastar/Columbia movie version, filmed in 1981 with the great John Huston in charge, had child star Aileen Quinn (who turned 50 this past June) resemble the character better with curly hair to match.

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Both the stage and movie versions are, of course, bloated musicals with an aim at a juvenile audience. They are not documentaries. While a nice chunk of the movie’s $35 million budget went to its recreation of a New York City of the early thirties, there are plenty of the usual anachronisms one expects.

One curio: the main characters go to Radio City Music Hall to see CAMILLE starring Greta Garbo a full three years before it was filmed and released. Intriguingly, this was not the first time this boo boo happened: MGM, the studio that made Greta’s film-within-a-film (that I am sure Columbia had to clear licensing rights to excerpt), had referenced it 34 years earlier in yet another musical, WORDS AND MUSIC, in a key 1920s scene (and, no, it was not the Nazimova version).

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ANNIE is no better or worse than so many other musicals that take their own historical liberties. It also reminds me of THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE a decade and a half earlier that was set in 1922 but featured songs, fashions and cars made later in the twenties, including a big number centered on the ‘26 hit “Baby Face.”

But…enough with the film’s boo boos and on to its entertainment highlights. While some viewers may detest all of the singing and dancing going on, there is so much of it that one can not possibly fall asleep. Personally I love all of the musical numbers.

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But I consider the high adventure scenes in the final act rather tedious in a stock 007 stunts sort of way, especially with our central character morphing into a frightened little waif rather than a courageous red head that she semi-portrays earlier in the show. At least Sandy the dog gets some action here to merit his inclusion on screen.

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This was one of a select number of musicals, along with ALL THAT JAZZ, to showcase the late and great Ann Reinking, whose filmography was not nearly as extensive as her stage work. Featured as Grace Farrell, private secretary to Oliver Warbucks played by Albert Finney (the bigger star), her moves captured on celluloid are a pretty good match to Cyd Charisse, Ann Miller and Vera-Ellen of MGM’s glory years of decades past.

Leslie Halliwell in his eighties Film and Video Guide editions absolutely hated this picture and labeled the dancing as “ponderous”…and it probably is with so much loud stomping going on. Yet I love how Ann gets physically active in her heels at the start of the enthusiastic “We Got Annie” number.

Aside from Reinking, this could also be described as a screen continuation of Carol Burnett’s long running variety show. Miss Hannigan was not a terribly challenging role for her since she is an expert comedy star when it comes to stumbling about and getting into accidents, although she generally did not play mean drunks outside this film.

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Unlike the stage original, Hannigan has a conscientious redemption moment when she stops her brother Rooster (Tim Curry) from potentially killing Annie and, while I am not sure if this was Carol’s decision or the screenwriter’s, it prevents her from getting the same stock bad ending so many other villains get. In the grand finale, she gets to ride Warbucks’ Republican elephant.

Reviews in 1982 were decidedly mixed, being that this was up against ET: THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL competing for the kids movie market. Many critics were split in regards to the two lead performances by Aileen Quinn and Albert Finney. I personally feel they carry the picture fairly well but am a bit less impressed with the supporting players even though they are all trying their best in very limited roles.

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We have Geoffrey Holder looking bored out of his mind as Punjab, Tim Curry and Bernadette Peters both doing better work in previous musicals and I suppose Edward Herman and Lois de Banzie make a satisfactory Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. I never understood the whole point of them being in both stage and screen versions except, perhaps, to poke a little fun at deceased Harold Gray, famously outspoken in his politics back in the thirties as an anti New Deal conservative. (The movie is less politically slanted than than the stage version.)

There is plenty in common here with OLIVER!, the stage and screen musical version of OLIVER TWIST, besides the Warbucks name. Fittingly, Columbia won the bidding war for the original precisely because the same studio scored a Best Picture Oscar success decades previous on the former. In fact, this may be the biggest flaw of both versions of ANNIE: they try too hard to be just like OLIVER! and not enough like the original Little Orphan Annie and her tomboy adventures.

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Like OLIVER!, it does feature equally catchy songs that work their way into you. “It’s a Hard Knock Life” may differ from “Food, Glorious Food” in subject matter but is sung in the same spirit by an impoverished juvenile cast and has enjoyed the most durability over the years with Jay-Z sampling it in a charting 1998 hip hop hit. Initially “Easy Street” was filmed with a much bigger production number that ultimately was scrapped, adding to much lost money in its making.

Of the left-intact numbers, I felt that the “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” sequence was about as impressive as any other I have seen in movie musicals. It is impressive seeing how many performers flawlessly get it right on cue here. While it may not have been filmed in just one take and probably involved a lot of editing tricks, it still holds up as a nice reminder of what Hollywood was still capable of, despite musicals becoming pretty much a thing of the past by the time ANNIE hit the big screen.

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I don't know if Harold Gray was buried or cremated but my humorous guess is that any turning over he did in his grave had already occurred at the time of the stage musical and he was probably well "rested in peace" by the time the movie came out. Granted, both deviated so much from the original comic strip that they would have been totally unrecognizable to him. The stage version was, in fact, quite political in tone with that very acidic song about outgoing president Herbert Hoover, whom I am sure Gray favored over FDR. Then again, the original novelization (per Wikipedia) was mostly written in 1972 just when the Watergate scandal was unfolding and there wasn't much confidence and respect in presidents in general.

Regardless of John Huston’s personal leanings, the movie version is so wishy-washy and homogenized that I doubt anybody concerned could accuse it for leaning one way or the other. Albert Finney made his Oliver Warbucks as equally lovable of a Republican as Michael J. Fox made his Alex B. Keaton in FAMILY TIES and I still laugh at the final scene showing Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan riding the elephant as if she too has "seen the light" and has converted to the "correct" party. Ha ha!

Since the movie eliminated so much of the biting edge from the stage version (a key reason the original stage songwriters involved hated it), we only have the FDR scene of interest to question. That is, with the Hoover song and anything else potentially polarizing dumped and replaced by such innocuous fluff as "Let's Go to the Movies". In an oddball way, I have a feeling that Harold himself would have rather enjoyed Albert Finney playing Oliver in the way he did, maintaining his stubbornness against the New Dealer who has taken over in Washington and only agreeing to sing along with Annie to maintain the peace. 
Harold was somewhat socially progressive for his time, at least compared to others working in comics at the time: https://www.tcj.com/harold-gray-and-the-limits-of-conservative-anti-racism/

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I am not sure if Harold Gray was progressive in how we define the term today. He did feature characters of color in the strip, but I think some of that was done during the war years to create a sense of solidarity against outside forces (the Axis powers).

One thing that is happening in the stage musical and in the musical film is that there is an ongoing backlash against Republican politics. Remember the film came out after Reagan had been elected as president by a landslide (something he would repeat in the next election).

In my view the democrats were trying to cling to a past that was not defined by Jimmy Carter's recently maligned administration but instead they were harking back to the much more "glorious" 12 year reign of King Franklin. Silly as that sounds. If the story had been changed to the postwar era, they probably would have had Annie befriending JFK, instead of Annie befriending Eisenhower.

They sought to use the comic strip, its heroine and auxiliary characters to tap into a sense of nostalgia about a time when liberal ideas were in full swing. The irony is that Harold Gray lived and worked during that time to subvert those political beliefs.

Ultimately we do not have a faithful rendering of the original source material, because it does not fit in with the viewpoints of the producers, writers, director and performers. Daddy Warbucks becomes a camp character to weaken any strong Republican values he may represent.

Gray's characters would actually be espousing the values of hard work, capitalism and conservative ideals as represented by Daddy's business success and the good life and its inherent benefits that he is able to bring to Annie. 

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Coming Up in February:

small screen comedy

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February 5 & 6

Witt/Thomas/Harris: It Takes Two

February 12 & 13

Witt/Thomas/Harris: The Golden Girls

February 19 & 20

Screen Gems: Bewitched

February 26 & 27

Screen Gems: Hazel

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Not to drag the conversation too much but I do have to briefly comment on the "glorious 12 year reign of King Franklin". Apparently it was so glorious that even Ronald Reagan himself was consistent in his own voting back then as a Democrat. If you add Truman, you get a full TWO decades of Democrat dominance that was even more impressive than the Harding/Coolidge/Hoover and Reagan/Bush 12 year spans. (Prior to 1913, the Republicans enjoyed two 16-year runs.) The domination of one party over the other was often a running gag in many comedy movies and radio shows of the 1940s.

Unlike the other presidents, Reagan had so many Hollywood connections when he entered the White House and this was a key reason why I brought up the movie ANNIE being watered down compared to the stage original. Columbia's executives wanted to make sure there was no unnecessary controversy involved with their $57 million plus production. No, they were not entirely successful. I fully agree that Oliver Warbucks was presented as a cardboard stereotype and we must question the obvious: was it really necessary to call him "Republican" on screen? Was the comic strip character affiliated with a certain party in the strips? I have not checked through them all to see if the R-word even comes up, but maybe another reader here can provide information. I think Gray considered himself more of a Libertarian than anything else but, of course, had to support the lesser of the two evils at election time since his party was never a dominant one.

I have yet to see the subsequent ANNIE movies, but they certainly would make for some lively conversation. The 1999 Disney-Columbia co-production was downright bizarre, if I am reading all of the online story points correctly. At least the first movie had Annie seeking her parents on the radio with Oliver's help, which certainly works as believable. Yet this version had FDR himself getting involved and using his connections as some sort of super hero, even confronting Miss Hannigan himself! The 2014 version, which Will Smith served as a producer of, got rather scathing reviews, but it does make the right decision of being set in the present day with no presidential visits involved. However, I would hope that the conditions in foster care would have improved over the decades since Cameron Diaz's version of Miss Hannigan would have more realistically been fired sooner.

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1 hour ago, Jlewis said:

Not to drag the conversation too much but I do have to briefly comment on the "glorious 12 year reign of King Franklin". Apparently it was so glorious that even Ronald Reagan himself was consistent in his own voting back then as a Democrat. If you add Truman, you get a full TWO decades of Democrat dominance that was even more impressive than the Harding/Coolidge/Hoover and Reagan/Bush 12 year spans. (Prior to 1913, the Republicans enjoyed two 16-year runs.) The domination of one party over the other was often a running gag in many comedy movies and radio shows of the 1940s.

Unlike the other presidents, Reagan had so many Hollywood connections when he entered the White House and this was a key reason why I brought up the movie ANNIE being watered down compared to the stage original. Columbia's executives wanted to make sure there was no unnecessary controversy involved with their $57 million plus production. No, they were not entirely successful. I fully agree that Oliver Warbucks was presented as a cardboard stereotype and we must question the obvious: was it really necessary to call him "Republican" on screen? Was the comic strip character affiliated with a certain party in the strips? I have not checked through them all to see if the R-word even comes up, but maybe another reader here can provide information. I think Gray considered himself more of a Libertarian than anything else but, of course, had to support the lesser of the two evils at election time since his party was never a dominant one.

I have yet to see the subsequent ANNIE movies, but they certainly would make for some lively conversation. The 1999 Disney-Columbia co-production was downright bizarre, if I am reading all of the online story points correctly. At least the first movie had Annie seeking her parents on the radio with Oliver's help, which certainly works as believable. Yet this version had FDR himself getting involved and using his connections as some sort of super hero, even confronting Miss Hannigan himself! The 2014 version, which Will Smith served as a producer of, got rather scathing reviews, but it does make the right decision of being set in the present day with no presidential visits involved. However, I would hope that the conditions in foster care would have improved over the decades since Cameron Diaz's version of Miss Hannigan would have more realistically been fired sooner.

The democrats were once again invoking the name of King Franklin when Clinton took office. These were desperate attempts by members to build the party back up to glory, but Clinton would have many failings. 

Anyway we're going to have to agree to disagree on this one. I stand by everything I wrote about ANNIE's liberalized treatment, and I do not see Harold Gray as a libertarian at all. He was as conservative a Republican as one could find in the 40s, 50s and 60s.

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Essential: It Takes Two (1982-1983)

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This month our theme is Small Screen Comedy. We we will be reviewing episodes from two Witt/Thomas/Harris productions: It Takes Two The Golden Girls. I will be writing about It Takes Two and Jlewis will be writing about The Golden Girls.

We will also be reviewing episodes from two Screen Gems productions: Bewitched & Hazel. Jlewis will be writing about Bewitched and I will be writing about Hazel. So let’s get things started…

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It Takes Two is a low-key situation comedy from Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions. A total of 22 episodes were produced and aired from October 14, 1982 to April 28, 1983 on ABC-TV. Most of the episodes were rerun during the summer of 1983 on ABC, when I was visiting my grandparents in Chicago, which happens to be where the series is set. My grandparents loved the show and watched it every week.

It Takes Two focuses on the Quinn family, a dual income household living in a nice high-rise apartment in downtown Chicago. This set-up paved the way for other dual income sitcoms in the 1980s like The Cosby Show (1984-1992), which debuted two years later and was also about a husband doctor and wife lawyer; as well as Growing Pains (1985-1992), which was about a husband doctor and wife reporter.

The main characters in It Takes Two are a pair of over-achievers who learn that their professional careers sometimes get in the way of family life. Dr. Sam Quinn (Richard Crenna) is a chief of surgery at a downtown hospital, and his wife Molly (Patty Duke) is an assistant D.A.

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In the early years of their marriage, Molly was the one who raised their children. But after taking college courses, she earned a law degree and now has a job as a city prosecutor. She no longer has time to be a totally devoted wife, and that creates some of the conflict in the initial episodes. Sam feels neglected, but loves Molly and aims to be supportive. Yes, on some level, this show is about women’s lib and the realigning of traditional relationships.

The Quinns have two teenaged kids, high school daughter Lisa (Helen Hunt) and her slightly older brother Andy (Anthony Edwards). Andy has already moved out and is an aspiring musician. Since Molly is busy at work everyday, domestic chores are taken on by her mother, known simply as Mama (Billie Bird), who lives with the family full-time.

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It Takes Two was produced by Susan Harris along with Paul Junger Witt (whom she married in 1983) and Tony Thomas (son of Danny, brother of Marlo). The trio of Witt/Thomas/Harris had previously brought television audiences the bold serial comedy Soap (1977-1981) and its spinoff Benson (1979-1986).

It Takes Two was a response by Harris to write a ] mainstream situation comedy that would still bring up relevant social issues. She had gone into outlandish territory with Soap and focused on race relations and political satire with Benson. But now it was time to prove she could write a more ‘sensible’ series about a traditional nuclear family.

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It Takes Two features two stars that were well known by TV audiences. Sam is played by Richard Crenna, who previously appeared in the hits Our Miss Brooks (1952-1956) and The Real McCoys (1957-1963).

Molly is played by Patty Duke (billed as Patty Duke Astin during her marriage to John Astin). She had been the star of her own sitcom two decades earlier, The Patty Duke Show (1963-1966), and had won awards for her work as young Helen Keller in THE MIRACLE WORKER (1963). She also had become a favorite with her memorable performance in the cult movie VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967).

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In It Takes Two, the characters played by Crenna and Duke deal with substantial upper-middle-class problems. Susan Harris presents them as intelligent people with an understanding about modern life. The wide-eyed teenaged offspring and the nutty grandmother are sitcom archetypes that provide interesting subplots and give the main duo multi-generational conflicts to play.

In an article written to publicize the series when it debuted in the fall of 1982, Crenna told an interviewer that Billie Bird, who plays Mama, would become a star.

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Bird has some of the funniest lines. The actress’s Hollywood career first gained traction during the early 1950s when she was assigned a series of character roles in big budget westerns and comedies. She didn’t become popular until her television work in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition to It Takes Two, she had a regular featured role on Benson as well as the Judd Hirsch sitcom Dear John (1988-1992).

Bird’s character Mama represents the older generation in the Quinn household. Her nutty “wisdom” is doled out to the family on a regular basis and is balanced by the more down-to-earth advice that Sam receives from a colleague named Walter Chaiken (Richard McKenzie). Dr. Chaiken is a psychiatrist on staff at Sam’s hospital.

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While Harris’ blueprint for It Takes Two is a situation comedy, it is also a program that can switch from hijinks to serious issues. Sam and Molly often discover in their parenting that they are repeating certain patterns with their children. Also their jobs allow darker themes to sneak into the framework of the series. One episode has Molly advocating for the death penalty in a criminal case she is prosecuting, while Sam works hard to save the life of a dying man.

Harris has made Sam the more liberal character, while Molly is conservative. It’s a neat subversive trick, because if Molly has to ultimately take the traditional route of deferring to her husband, then she is going to refer to an increasingly liberal point of view.

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As episodes progress during the show’s single season, there are scenarios about the quality of life in America. One episode involves young Lisa coming to terms with how we all live with the bomb and the fear that nuclear war could happen. Not standard sitcom fodder, but definitely a way to make points with the audience. Lisa learns how doing the right thing is essential to everyone’s survival.

In order to emphasize the family’s feel-good moments, poignant music plays on the soundtrack. The theme song for It Takes Two is ‘Where Love Spends the Night,’ a tune that is performed by country singers Crystal Gayle & Paul Williams. Also, there is background music and transitional music used between scenes that is very similar to what we hear on Witt/Thomas/Harris’ hit The Golden Girls (1985-1992). 

After It Takes Two ended its run, Sam and Molly Quinn’s kitchen set was put in storage at the company’s studios on Gower Street in Hollywood.

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It was re-used as Blanche Deveraux’s kitchen two years later in The Golden Girls with only a few changes in wallpaper and backdrop— the view of Chicago outside the window above the sink was replaced with a view of Miami palm trees and bushes.

On The Golden Girls the kitchen leads directly into the living room. Blanche’s living room has a hallway in back that leads off to the bedrooms as well as a front door that leads to a porch, plus there is an area upstage that leads to a lanai outside. However, the sets for It Takes Two are a bit more spacious.

The Golden Girls does not have any standing secondary sets (unless you count the lanai). But It Takes Two has several. We often see Sam’s medical office at the hospital with an outer hallway, as well as a break room where he has coffee with colleagues. Meanwhile, Molly’s legal office is shown, and there is a decent sized courtroom in which she occasionally litigates (Della Reese appears as the judge).

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Episodes of It Takes Two have never been released on home video. However, the series did enter syndication in the mid-1980s— despite having less than two dozen episodes— along with It’s a Living (a Witt/Thomas production that did not involve Susan Harris). The success of these two programs in reruns led to It’s a Living getting a new lease on life with four additional seasons in first-run syndication.

It Takes Two did not get another lease on life, probably because Patty Duke had signed on to do Hail to the Chief, the next Witt/Thomas/Harris offering and Richard Crenna was busy making Rambo movies with Sylvester Stallone. Billie Bird’s contract with Witt/Thomas/Harris was extended after It Takes Two went off the air, when she was transferred to the role of Mrs. Cassidy, the housekeeper on Benson.

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Anthony Edwards and Helen Hunt pursued work in motion pictures and other television series. Anthony Edwards would become a household name on NBC’s medical drama ER (1994-2009) while Helen Hunt found success as a lead in the NBC romantic sitcom Mad About You (1992-1999) which in turn led to her becoming a bonafide movie star and the recipient of an Oscar for AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997).

It Takes Two is a show that deserves to be remembered for its groundbreaking depiction of dual income families, and its seamless ability to combine standard situation comedy with social message drama. It should also be remembered for its very accomplished cast. Episodes recorded from syndication may currently be found on YouTube, though the video quality is what you’d expect from something made in the 1980s that hasn’t been digitally restored. Also, Susan Harris’ script for the very first episode can be found on eBay, but the price is steep.

I have been rewatching It Takes Two and enjoying it again, like I did all those years ago at my grandparents’ Chicago home. Tomorrow I will post short reviews on four of the more noteworthy episodes…

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Although it won't be covered among the GOLDEN GIRLS reviews, I should briefly reference the popular 1986 episode titled "Isn't it Romantic?" here since you mentioned producer Tony Thomas and his famous family. In that one, Blanche confuses the word "lesbian" with "Lebanese" and asks "Isn't Danny Thomas one?" Sophia later tells Blanche that if Rose "finds out Danny Thomas is a lesbian, it will break her heart."

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Reviews for noteworthy episodes of It Takes Two

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Death Penalty

This is probably the best episode of It Takes Two. The script, which is a meditation on life and death, was written by Susan Harris who created the series.

Sam and Molly Quinn (Richard Crenna and Patty Duke) are both dealing with professional crises. At the hospital Sam is tasked with performing surgery on a likable 72 year old patient (Scatman Crothers) who may not survive. Meanwhile Molly is assigned to handle a widely publicized homicide case in which the defendant could receive punishment by death.

These storylines bring the show’s main theme about a liberal husband and a conservative wife into focus. Sam is vehemently opposed to capital punishment, whereas Molly believes in an eye-for-an-eye since the accused man killed six women and one of those women was pregnant at the time of her murder.

Throwing a spanner into the works is a visit by the defendant’s immigrant mother (Kim Stanley) who begs Molly to understand her son’s mental illness. Mrs. Tandy claims voices in her boy’s head turn him violent beyond his control. Molly is not willing to extend sympathy, and the mother is heartbroken to realize her son will get the electric chair if Molly’s side prevails in court.

Kim Stanley and Patty Duke had previously appeared in THE GODDESS (1958), so this was a special reunion for the two actresses. Their interaction provides us with one of the best scenes in the whole series.

Since Sam and Molly are driving two “A” plots in this episode, there isn’t a subplot; so the supporting cast has little to do. High school aged daughter Lisa (Helen Hunt) has a brief bit at the beginning. But older son Andy (Anthony Edwards), who has moved into his own place, does not appear. Sam’s coworker Dr. Walter Chaiken (Richard McKenzie) is featured at the hospital when Sam confides in him about what’s been going on. Mama (Billie Bird) has a few funny moments refereeing Sam and Molly at home, when they are temporarily at odds regarding Molly’s crusade.

Of course Molly is the one who ultimately comes to her senses. She admits to Sam at the end that she does not enjoy sending someone to death, even if they are guilty. She isn’t sure if she can go through this ever again. But Sam comforts his wife and reassures her that she is a good and fair person. Fairness is another theme in Susan Harris’ design of this series.

Mister Molly Quinn

We start with Sam (Richard Crenna) telling Walter (Richard McKenzie) that he can’t go on a planned fishing trip. This is because Sam feels he should accompany Molly (Patty Duke) who is leaving for a legal conference in New York.

The second scene cuts to Sam and Molly’s arrival at a posh hotel in New York City. One thing I’ve always admired about Witt/Thomas/Harris productions is how lavishly furnished and decorated the temporary sets are done up, like this one. Sam and Molly’s hotel room is top of the line, almost nicer than the standing bedroom set that is seen inside the Quinns’ Chicago home.

The “A” plot involves Sam’s inability to spend time with Molly who is swamped with legal meetings that don’t include him. She has to cancel several sightseeing excursions with him as well as a special evening to attend a Broadway show. This plot is more about Sam’s gradual realization that his wife’s career as a lawyer is equally important as his career as a doctor.

There’s a nifty scene in the hotel lobby where Sam has decided to return to Chicago alone and he meets a world-wise taxi driver (played by Witt/Thomas/Harris regular Donnelly Rhodes). The cabbie’s wife is also a lawyer staying at the hotel who is too busy to spend time with him. The men humorously commiserate. At the same time Molly overcomes her guilt about making her career a priority, though her marriage with Sam retains utmost importance.

The “B” plot takes place at the Quinns’ high-rise apartment in Chicago. Mama (Billie Bird) keeps Lisa (Helen Hunt) occupied and prevents Lisa from worrying about a blizzard when the lights go out. After lighting some candles, Mama tells Lisa stories about the old days and certain black sheep members of the family. It’s obvious that most of Mama’s nutty recollections are fictional, meant to entertain Lisa. Scenes like these underscore the value of multi-generational bonds in the Quinn home.

Inside Lisa Quinn

I rather liked the “A” plot in this episode which is not typical sitcom fare. Teenaged Lisa Quinn (Helen Hunt) worries about the world ending because of a nuclear bomb. Her instinct is to survive, but how can she? I remember being in high school a few years after this and also worrying about the bomb. Of course, I didn’t leave home for awhile to deal with my feelings like Lisa does.

The part where Lisa winds up at a pastry shop and talks to a homeless man (Richard Libertini) is interesting. Though the chances of her running into someone who’d also ‘checked out’ of society for similar reasons seems a bit unlikely. Back home we see the Quinn family band together to try and track Lisa down.

The “B” plot involves Walter (Richard McKenzie) falling out with his wife, the never seen Louise. This situation causes his temporary homelessness and subsequent lodging with Sam and Molly (Richard Crenna and Patty Duke). It is nice to have him included in the domestic scenes of the show, since he usually just functions as a work sidekick for Sam at the hospital. At one point Walter bonds with Mama (Billie Bird) over pastry. This suggests he’s now an extended member of the household, even if he will go back to his own place to grovel for Louise’s forgiveness.

Meanwhile, Lisa has returned to her senses and come back home. She has a heartfelt talk with her parents that references the gap between them as well as the fact that the younger generation has a chance to undo some of the mistakes that older generations have made.

Soon things are back to normal or as close to normal as they can be for Lisa. She learns from her brother Andy (Anthony Edwards) that there’s a cute boy hanging out with his band. If Lisa tags along, she can spend time with the guy. In other words, Lisa Quinn may not be able to solve all the big problems of the world right now, but she can still enjoy being a teenager.

The Suit

This is one of the funnier episodes of the show. Andy (Anthony Edwards) stops by and helps his sister Lisa (Helen Hunt) deal with a ‘tragedy’ that has occurred while Mama (Billie Bird) is left in charge of a friend’s bird. The friend is played by veteran character actress Florence Halop.

‘The Suit’ is the penultimate episode that was produced. If the series had been renewed, we might have seen Florence Halop reprise her role as Mama’s friend Florence…even if she was making regular appearances on St. Elsewhere during this time as Mrs. Hufnagel.

In the story, Florence has left a stuffed bird, still inside its cage, with Mama. Mama knows the bird is dead, but of course Lisa and Andy do not. They assume it has had an attack and fallen off its perch. They are afraid to touch it, otherwise they would have discovered the taxidermy. In a scene that follows, they tell Mama the bird dead. But she seems undisturbed by the situation (because she knows it was stuffed), leading them to think she’s in denial.

Andy then goes out and gets another similar looking bird, to replace the one that “died.” The scene where they present the living bird to Mama and Florence is priceless, since the women now believe the stuffed bird has magically come to life.

Meanwhile, Sam and Molly (Richard Crenna and Patty Duke) meet with a neighbor named Wallace (Larry Gelman) who sells insurance. During their conversation, they serve Wallace one of Mama’s nutballs and when the crunchy food gets stuck in the man’s throat, Sam performs the Heimlich on him and saves his life. But Wallace claims that during the procedure, Sam dislocated his shoulder and he’s going to sue the Quinns for everything they’re worth. Enter the Quinns’ lawyer and Wallace’s pregnant wife (Beverly Archer) who each play a part in the unfolding ‘drama.’

Since this is a half-hour show with a happy ending, we know the neighbor will drop his exaggerated claims against the Quinns, which he does when Sam helps deliver his newborn child. The status quo restored, Sam and Molly go back home to relax. Though they probably won’t be having any more of Mama’s nutballs for awhile.

***

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Essential: The Golden Girls (1985-1992)

Jlewis:

The Golden Girls seems to get more mileage these days on both TV and online viewing than so much other entertainment of the 1980s. This is despite the fact that Betty White, who passed away just before turning 100 recently, was the last survivor of the mighty foursome involved. One advantage of sitcom comedies is that they do not require you to have much knowledge of previous episodes (unlike that same decade’s Dallas, for example). Their story lines are often resolved within a half hour period or, if there happens to be a two parter, within an hour.

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This show reminds me a little of the Jack Benny Program of old time radio’s peak years of circa 1935-55, less so in its later television version, with carry-over gags (one key joke may be repeated three times during the duration of an episode), witty social references and, most importantly, one straight-forward character surrounded by an assortment of more colorful types who operate in reaction to him/her.

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Bea Arthur’s Dorothy resembles, if not actually duplicates, Jack Benny’s role in this regard with both sharing a similar but distinctive saturnian sarcasm. Also, when she left the show and its sequel The Golden Palace tried to continue without her, it was almost as if a Jack Benny show continued without Jack.

Although enormously talented, the three other leads, in a way, operate as supports to Bea’s Dorothy despite equal billing and equal screen time.

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Betty White as Rose resembles Dennis Day in wholesome innocence, while Rue McClanahan as Blanche greatly resembles Phil Harris the self confident charmer and expert at living life at its fullest.

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All four of these stars in both series succeeded in other radio and TV series without Jack or Bea very well; therefore, I am certainly not demoting their talents in any way here. Estelle Getty as Dorothy’s mother Sophia successfully combines characteristics of both Mary Livingston and Eddie Anderson a.k.a. Rochester in that she constantly reminds Dorothy of her many shortcomings.

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All three like to tell fantastic stories: Rose discusses “back in” St. Olaf, Blanche her past conquests in dating and Sophia with a “picture it…” from long ago. Yet Dorothy only tells the humdrum stories of her humdrum life that includes her troubled marriage to Stanley Zbornack (Herb Edelman), who pops in periodically through the episodes as an uninvited visitor whom she can’t get rid of.

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Nonetheless Dorothy is the “heart” of this TV family and, during those memorable years of 1985-92, her seat at the kitchen table was always in the center position opposite the unoccupied seat that we the viewer sit at when listening in on their intimate discussions.

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Ultimately the durability of this show comes from these characters proving that life does not end at 50 or 65 or even 80. You still have a sex life. You can still enjoy new experiences and wild adventures even if you must maintain a sense of humor in order to deal with events that do not go your way.

Oh… and thank you for being a friend since very few of us can operate completely alone.

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TopBilled: Tomorrow we will post reviews that Jlewis has written on four of the more noteworthy episodes of this series...and I will also share memories of when I visited the set.

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The Golden Girls Reviews

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Ladies of the Evening

(October 4, 1986, writers: Barry Fanaro & Mort Nathan; director: Terry Hughes)

My guess is that sometime in the future, maybe even in our own lifetimes, the oldest profession in the world will eventually become a legal one in this part of the world as it is in other parts. For some reason, it was a big hoopty-doo topic of discussion back in the 1980s on many TV shows. Maybe because so many prominent politicians and evangelicals were making the news back then for paying for “it”? What makes this episode fun is that we have three familiar characters arrested for being in The Profession and Sophia stating the obvious: “I can’t believe these dumb cops would think people would wanna pay money to sleep with you!”

Blanche wins three tickets to meet Burt Reynolds and other stars at a pre-premiere movie party and, because their house is getting worked on for termite infiltration, she gets the four of them a weekend stay at the cheapest hotel in Miami. Lo and behold…it is a place where much sex for money business takes place and the police do a raid the very night the ladies are staying there. A very disgruntled Sophia, who stays with them but somehow avoids this predicament, refuses to bail them out because…again…there are only three tickets involved and the others are unwilling to give up theirs, even in prison. She then snatches them from their very hands behind the bars to enjoy her some Burt all to herself!

It is a wonderful, if totally unrealistic, episode that puts our main characters in an unpredictable setting. When confronting the more aggressive ladies, Dorothy pretends she was previously a veteran of the all male Attica prison and it took a year “before they found out” she was not a man. There is also a memorable scene with Blanche trying to con an officer she thinks is a man with sweet talk, but “he” turns around to reveal a “she.”

This is historically significant as the first episode specifically mentioning St. Olaf, although Rose referenced Minnesota in previous shows, and her sob story about losing a Butter Queen tournament prompts a fellow inmate Meg (Rhonda Aldrich) to admit she is a neighbor from St. Gustaf who wound up in The Profession simply to make ends meet. Late in the episode, she visits Rose back at home to say she convinced herself to try her luck again back home since she did not wish to remain in the business at Rose’s age!

In a memorable cameo scene, the real Burt Reynolds himself comes to pick up Sophia for lunch and shocks the other three after they had all returned home. Amusingly, Burt gets referenced in several episodes during the first few seasons, often without any acknowledgment that these ladies all met him. Lots of vintage name drops and product placements get repeated which certainly dates this show to the decade it was made. On the plus side, Neiman Marcus is still in business, being referenced both here and in a later show I will cover, Sister of the Bride.

***

Grab That Dough

(January 23, 1988, writer: Winifred Hervey; director: Terry Hughes)

Even less realistic than the previous show, but similar in plot points and quite enjoyable. Sophia wins tickets, four this time, to appear on a Hollywood game show of the episode’s title. Yet they have to get across the country in short notice and one can only guess how expensive the airline tickets would be. Then they hit bad luck when they arrive with missing luggage and also lose their purses after sleeping in a booked up hotel lobby. (Little House on the Prairie fans will recognize Lucy Lee Flippin as the hotel clerk.)

The game show itself is a well written piece of comedy fluff. In a setup similar to an earlier bowling tournament episode, Dorothy and Blanche team together in competition against an upset Sophia a.k.a. you-are-no-longer-my-daughter and Rose. As in the earlier bowl show, the latter two win the questionnaire portion easily. None of them win out in the end, however, except for a prize skillet and a year’s supply of soup instead of $900 in cash or a bright red sports car. James MacKrell plays the game show host Guy Corbin, a totally fictional character just like the show itself.

A few memorable lines: Corbin asks the complete-this-line question “better late than…” and Blanche responds quickly “pregnant!” Dorothy to Blanche: “Is that all you care about? Money and applause?” Her reply: “ and sex…for which I generally get an applause.” Blanche also tries to get under the show assistant Tiffany’s (Kelly Andrus) skin by commenting on her publicized photos in some sexy mens magazine, this scene spoofing the then current Vanna White controversy with Playboy.

***

Valentine's Day

(February 11, 1989, writers: Kathy Speer, Terry Grossman, Barry Fanaro & Mort Nathan; director: Terry Hughes)

Two or three times each season, our happy foursome would sit around the table eating and taking trips down memory lane. Very rarely, but more than once, the flashbacks highlighted would involve material from previous episodes. Usually they consisted of original one-act sketches that the performers needed to do as a break from the normal routine. This episode resembles others focusing on Mothers Day and birthday themes but is much more satisfying as a whole. In fact, I would rank it pretty high among the series’ best.

Memory 1: 

Sophia gives a “picture it, Valentine’s Day 1929”… and, of course, the setting just has to be Chicago with a certain gangster massacre in the backdrop. Remember SOME LIKE IT HOT? Only Papa Angelo (Bill Dana, who also played Uncle Angelo in present-day episodes) claims to have “seen something” and is eager to get all three characters out of Chicago pronto.

Note that the date in question is exactly 60 years in the past (as of 1989) and supposedly Estelle Getty is playing Sophia herself in her early twenties even though she clearly doesn’t look that age, as is Sid Melton who always covered late husband Sal in all of these flashbacks. Then again, that is supposed to be the whole joke of the situation: it is all based on Sophia telling it as if she was wise ahead of her years and daughter Dorothy insists it was all made up…and it probably is. The vintage garage set and old car featured are pretty ambitious visuals selling it here.

Memory 2, this one a classic: 

Rose books a lodge suite for her, Dorothy and Blanche one Valentine’s at Sunny Meadows (located in a state outside of Florida where there is a mountain somewhere) and fails to realize it is a nudist retreat. Although these ladies are modest, they aren’t totally so and Blanche admires all of the male anatomy on display. In fact, the only partial (allowed on TV) nudity you see on screen involves the stuffy middle aged clerk (Peter Elbling) and the younger hunky porter (Michael Blue). When observing a volleyball match from the window, Dorothy questions whether or not one fellow is “legally serving” the game, hinting that he is, ahem, well endowed.

Dorothy is always the voice of reason here and mentions that “the more you stare” the more “natural” it all seems. They take a while to gather the courage but eventually decide to let their inhibitions go, even if it involves attending a dinner in which everybody else winds up fully clothed. This scene makes absolutely no sense to me since a typical “clothing optional resort” will more likely allow you the “option” to dine in any state of dress or undress you wish.

One humorous detail: when hiding behind a huge bed sheet and giant heart signs, only Dorothy is barefooted. The other two wear heels…not flip flops like you would normally expect. My guess is that Bea Arthur was the only one who remembered the whole plot of their sketch in that moment.

Memory 3: 

Blanche is alone at a bar/dinner place during February thinking of her late George in a scene set a year after his death but before she met her friends. What is striking to me is that the set here looks pretty similar to the one used just a few episodes back when brother Clayton (whose character I will cover in the next review) confirms to Blanche he is gay. No surprise here that this sketch covers similar territory.

One lonely young fellow (Tom Isbell) is listening to Blanche talk to herself and questions if her rhetoric may be useful for him “popping the question” to the object of his affections. Love is love and some things never change. Always eager to give romantic advice, she gets all involved in coaching ye timid one. When she sees his boyfriend arriving, she is surprised that a girl is not involved but admits to the bartender that, well, “some things do change.”

Memory 4:

As in the nudist sketch, Sophia is not involved but gets the full story told to her about the other three caught in an embarrassing situation at the pharmacy…

Blanche: Girls, maybe we don’t have everything we need.

Dorothy: What? What are we missing?

Blanche: Well, we are going away on a romantic weekend to the Bahamas with Jeff and Rich and Randy. In this day and age, it might be a good idea to take some protection.

Rose: What kind of protection?

Dorothy: Two armed Pinkerton guards! No, Blanche is talking about… (pointing)

Rose: Nestles Crunch?

Dorothy: One over.

Rose: Animal bag?

Dorothy: To the right

Rose: Denture Grip?

Dorothy: Condoms, Rose! Condoms! Condoms! Condoms!

Clerk: Calm down lady. Just get out of prison?

Shortly later, the clerk must announce a price check on the intercom about all three of their purchases for the “King George size” and “the blonde,” Rose, is getting hers in the “ultra sensitive in black.” This all prompts Blanche to make a speech with the same overhead microphone to express how morally responsible they all are. Meanwhile, Dorothy and Rose make a quick getaway of shame.

So…what is the purpose of the ladies feasting on chocolates during all of these stories? They are dateless on the holiday but, in the end, they are not anymore as they get a final surprise at the front door. (Not that I recall seeing any of these men in any other episodes so they were not of major importance in these ladies’ lives like Miles later was to Rose.) Julio Iglesias arrives in the last scene as Sophia’s date but doesn’t say much of anything and doesn’t sing, unlike Burt Reynolds, Bob Hope, Alex Trebek and others who at least milked their celebrity status on the show.

***

Sister of the Bride

(January 12, 1991, writers: Marc Cherry & Jamie Wooten; director: Matthew Diamond)

It is odd to see cast members like Rue McClanahan, who was always supportive of the gay rights movement and even appeared in movies going way back like SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE…, come off as slightly homophobic on screen here. Yet you have to understand that she plays her role in much the same fashion as liberal minded Carroll O’Connor played conservative Archie Bunker many years earlier.

They are providing a voice to the many viewers watching who are less progressive in their social views than they are and trying to educate in the most entertaining, but not condescending, way possible. The character of Blanche shows that she may think she is liberal minded in her own dating life with “many, many men” but still has a way to go in not judging others, namely her own brother Clayton (Monte Markham) who revealed to her that he was gay in the episode Scared Straight that aired on December 10, 1988.

In this landmark episode, he decides to marry…or, rather, have a commitment ceremony with, at a time when such things were decades too early to be legalized…his policeman boyfriend Doug (Michael Ayr). At an awards benefit in which Rose gets into a state of rage for losing some silly honor to a rival who died but is getting it posthumously, Blanche commits the unthinkable by yelling “fire” to avoid some matron from finding out who “these nice men” Clayton and Doug are. The whole attitude of “it is not that I am bothered about him being gay but why does the whole world need to know about it?” that is something Blanche must only resolve for herself in the end.

Two key scenes of dialogue have made this episode justifiably famous:

In the first, Clayton says “I would do anything for Doug and he’d bend over backwards for me” and this prompts Dorothy to grab Sophia, covering her mouth instantly, and respond “I just love to hug my mommy!” I guess this scene suggests that Clayton favors the “top” positioning behind closed doors, but it also emphasizes a common problem with so many older gay themed TV shows made for a conservative heterosexual audience. Those unwilling to think outside of the box judge others strictly on physical terms (how one looks, acts in masculine vs. feminine roles and in their private sex lives) rather than in emotional, relationship oriented terms that are common to everybody regardless.

In the end, Sophia is the one whose mouth never needed covering. When Blanche asks why her brother must get married to a guy, Sophia asks why she and George did so many years ago. “We loved each other. We wanted to make a lifetime commitment. Wanted everybody to know.” Sophia’s response is one that ultimately ended up as a major Supreme Court decision in 2015: “That’s what Doug and Clayton want too. Everyone wants someone to grow old with and shouldn’t everyone have that chance?”

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TopBilled:

I had published this on my blog a few years ago:

The first set I ever visited was The Golden Girls in the fall of 1991. They had metal detectors when you went inside; most of the other stages didn’t, though many probably started using them afterward. The episode I saw being filmed was ‘The Pope’s Ring’ from season 7. The director, Lex Passaris, never came down on stage. He directed the whole thing from the catwalk above using a microphone.

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The sets were like you see on screen. The living room door opened into nothing really. Just a fake backdrop on the other side. This episode had two temporary sets: a hospital room and hospital hallway. Those were built next to the main kitchen set, downstage left. Much of the action took place outside the house using the temporary sets.

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They were running short on time and had to stretch some jokes out. They gave Rue McClanahan a line about a credit card. The audience didn’t find it very funny, but the audience was asked to laugh several times, so they could record lengthy reactions with the other main characters. They padded an extra 30 seconds with that bit. At the end, they had Estelle Getty improvise a scene where her character Sophia was playing poker with the pope. Silly and not in the original script, but they were still short on time. They ended up putting longer closing credits over that improvised business.

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Estelle had trouble remembering a lot of her lines. She slowed things down considerably. At one point, she had to sit in a chair by the camera operators and take an extended break. She looked at me and smiled and I smiled back. She regained her confidence, stood up and resumed filming. It didn’t surprise me that she was soon diagnosed with dementia. She continued to play the character three more seasons, though in a reduced capacity, on the spinoff The Golden Palace; then on the other spinoff Empty NestShe was a trouper.

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Normally I don’t watch the episodes on TV after I see them filmed. There are different reasons for this. Sometimes I just don’t happen to catch them in syndication. But I did finally see ‘The Pope’s Ring’ about a year ago on Hulu. It held up well and ended up being better than I thought it would be. It’s interesting to see something performed live in 1991, then to see the recorded version 25 years later.

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2 hours ago, TopBilled said:

 

Did the cast seem to get along? Last week on some podcast or other, GG casting director Joel Thurm had some less than nice things to say about Betty White.  He, not surprisingly, is promoting a book.

I hope you don't mind me asking but were you on set just to see the taping or were you working/interning?

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30 minutes ago, Peebs said:

Did the cast seem to get along? Last week on some podcast or other, GG casting director Joel Thurm had some less than nice things to say about Betty White.  He, not surprisingly, is promoting a book.

I hope you don't mind me asking but we're you on set just to see the taping or were you working/interning?

For this one, I was just there for the taping. As I said, it was the first set I had ever visited. This was about two or three months after I had arrived in Los Angeles and was in my first semester of college. I was kind of ambitious in those days. I was already attending workshops in addition to my college coursework, so I could network and make industry connections. 

I had met a gal at one of these events who worked on the primetime show Sisters and we became fast friends. She knew people on other shows. With her help, I wound up visiting a lot of different sets sometimes as an observer off to the side, sometimes as part of the audience watching a taping occur. 

She wanted to go to the set of The Golden Girls because she had a gift for Betty White. There was a point during the taping of 'The Pope's Ring' that Betty White's character Rose was not in one of the scenes (because it involved the episode's other plot which Rose was not a part of)...so Betty was watching that scene off to the side, because she was not required on camera and she had already finished changing for her next scene. My friend Gina was able to get us both over to that part of the stage so she could give Betty the gift-- a sweatshirt that said St. Olaf on it. 

There were only eight or nine more episodes produced, since this was midway through the last season. I am sure they all knew Bea Arthur was leaving, but that had not been announced yet. I did not notice any friction on the set. They were all very professional. I think Estelle's problems remembering lines was something they just had to deal with, and that usually fell on the director and his assistants to get Estelle through her more difficult moments. 

While Betty seemed to be more in tune with the audience, I noticed that Bea and Rue were very isolated from the studio audience. They never came over or interacted with visitors to the set. The script was running short on time and they were asking Rue to ad-lib and put in some extra emphasis with various line deliveries to pad one of the scenes, so she was probably busy focusing on that and did not have time to think about the audience. Bea seemed like a real queen bee to me, but so great, always hitting her marks, totally in control of the scenes, never once flubbing or making any noticeable mistakes.

As I said in the piece I posted on my blog, I usually never watch the episodes on actual television. It took me almost 25 years to watch this episode of The Golden Girls because every time I'd look for it in reruns, I would just miss it. But I was also afraid to watch it because I thought it didn't turn out too good, but to my surprise, it did turn out very well. 

Gina and I went to the sets of Designing Women and Evening Shade where she had other connections. In fact I spent nearly the whole sixth season of Designing Women on that set (the season where Julia Duffy replaced Delta Burke which was the highest rated year of the program).

Later I hung out on the sets of FrasierRebaWill & Grace and The Drew Carey Show (probably the most fun set of all). But I have never seen any of those episodes on screen. I think part of it is that I feel the editors may have chosen shots or left things out that would alter the story from how I saw it recorded live and I like to cling to my memories of those on-set visits.

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Essential: Bewitched (1964-1972)

Jlewis:

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Bewitched is one of the quintessential sitcoms of the sixties, but I should explain myself better here to avoid confusion. It was not one of the highest rated sitcoms like, say, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Andy Griffith Show or Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. Nor was it the most critically acclaimed like The Dick Van Dyke Show even though it did get its share of Emmy attention.

The ratings were very good during the first six seasons overall but, like so many long running series that ran out of steam, it did get repetitive in the later years and this reflected Nielsen-wise.

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You only need to see five minutes of this vintage ABC show to identify the era in which it was made. Yes, most of the other shows also reflected the times to a degree (even Green Acres had its “flower power” hippie episode) but this one displayed more of it than usual. Although the Vietnam war, civil rights movement, unrest in the streets and assassinations were all left for the news hour since the focus after 7 p.m. was on escapism, there was no escaping the cultural references, changing fashions and yearly Chevrolet models on display since General Motors was a key sponsor.

One odd little curio to mention. It was because there was so much sponsorship involved with this program that, when Columbia’s Screen Gems had to repackage episodes for syndication in the 70s when such product promotion was no longer necessary, the opening credits had to be re-edited.

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It was decided to merely stitch on one of two generic animated (by Hanna-Barbara) introductions sporting only two copyright dates accordingly and involving the two different Darrin actors presented in cartoon form. Thus, a typical episode we see today sporting a date of 1969 could have initially been aired anytime between then and 1972. This makes proper dating confusing if you are not looking up your info elsewhere, but it is still easy to identify the era in which a show was made.

Bewitched showcased both the good and bad of typical TV viewing back then. Super annoying were those laugh tracks that were not recorded live as in the earlier shows like I Love Lucy since this one involved complicated special effects work and was done on closed studio sets without audience participation. Filmed in 35mm like a great many sitcoms since the days of Hal Roach back in 1948 as a better format for rebroadcast than kinescope recording (later video) of live shows, Columbia made its small screen product as it did its big screen multi chapter serials and two reel comedies of decades past.

You often saw the same sets recycled over and over including obvious painted backdrops behind the Stephens’ backyard and behind their front door, along with the same performers playing different characters in episodes broadcast just weeks apart (such as Sara Seeger as the huffy wife of multiple clients for Larry Tate’s company and Dick Wilson as the drunk seeing Samantha pop in and out).

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Although there were no open statements on social reform until the famous Christmas episode of 1970 that addressed white vs. black racism, the show did allow some subtle soft messaging into its storylines. Center to our plot is a mixed marriage between a witch with super powers and a mortal that could be taken as commentary on the ever increasing mixed marriages of the sixties, both involving different religions and, thanks to the Loving vs. Virginia case that was finalized between seasons 3 and 4, different races as well.

The need to be secretive due to possible persecution was another statement of the times, being that this decade was a transitional one framed by the rather conformist 1950s and the anything goes “Me Decade” 1970s. Americans were frustrated keeping up with the Joneses trying to “blend in.” This show was part of a sub genre of TV often associated with an “I’ve got a secret“ theme that also included Mr. Ed, My Favorite Martian, I Dream of Jeannie and delirious oddities like My Mother the Car, but not The Addams Family or The Munsters who were already living in a state of “we do not care what anybody thinks of us.”

In my commentary of The Golden Girls, there is some mention of its then progressive LGBT stance, but this show was made back in the Dark Ages when anything remotely related to the subject that was allowed to broadcast on television was restricted to some CBS Report with Mike Wallace feeling sorry for those suffering this “mental disorder.” However the (barely reported at the time) Stonewall events that opened up the gay rights movement strategically occurred right around the same time as the infamous cast change of the Darrins.

Dick York had nothing to worry about since he was a happily married heterosexual (his departure was due to continuing back pains brought on by a movie accident a decade earlier), but Dick Sargent had a long term boyfriend at this time and had to be very quiet about it. Decades later, Elizabeth Montgomery joined him in a Pride Parade when he was finally able to go public.

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And he was not alone. Maurice Evans and Paul Lynde were a little more up front about their orientation despite the current Wikipedia article on the former still being rather nebulous about his personal life by dubbing him a “bachelor.”

There were other cast members who also remained unmarried or were only married briefly, but we must be careful speculating on those who kept their private life intensely private such as George Tobias and Agnes Moorehead even if the latter wore more eyeliner as Endora than anybody competing on RuPaul's Drag Race.

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One of the Murphy twins who played Tabitha (Diane, who made fewer appearances on screen than Erin) came out as a lesbian as an adult. The fact that Darrin frequently called Samantha “Sam,” a masculine name, prompted plenty of interesting gender questioning by those not in the know.

One fun little tidbit to note is that married couples sharing a bed like Darrin and Samantha Stephens was something you did often see back then in theatrical released movies (even the earlier comedy short films like Warner Brothers’ Joe McDoakes were showing this frequently by 1950) but it was still quite rare on the family oriented and Madison Avenue dominated small screen before this time.

Post-Bewitched, you pretty much took it for granted. It was a sign of a happy marriage that you saw this with the Stephens and I recall at least two episodes contrasting them to the neighboring Kravitz who had twin beds separated by a night stand. Thus, Gladys Kravitz needed plenty to do to keep her sexual frustrations under control…like spying on the Stephenses.

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Sol Saks was a key creator of the series with Harry Ackerman as key executive producer. Primary supervision was done by William Asher, a prolific director of a great many episodes of I Love Lucy, Our Miss Brooks (Eve Arden did make one appearance in Bewitched) and even The Twilight Zone (which Dick York, Elizabeth Montgomery and Agnes Moorehead all appeared in). By this time, Asher was married to the star Elizabeth and the show lasted as long as their marriage.

The pilot episode ‘I, Darrin, Take This Witch’  started production the day of the Kennedy assassination, although actual filming was completed on December 6, 1963. It and the next 73 episodes filmed between July 1964 and April 1966 comprise the first two seasons, all shot in glorious black and white.

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Although memorable episodes were made in all of the seasons, the batting average in the early years were particularly good since the novelty was still fresh and magical with the writers all inspired by the premise being quite different than so much other prime time material.

Unfortunately these did not get aired nearly as often in the syndication era as the 180 color episodes filmed between June 1966 and December 1971 since many local stations favored color shows more. I did see quite a few B&Ws in my youth on UHF stations but it was only after the Nickelodeon network started airing them in 1989 on a regular basis that a great many of us longtime viewers really got to rediscover just how wonderful they were.

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Bewitched Reviews

Jlewis:

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Just One Happy Family

Filmed in black and white, this one was written by Fred Freeman and Lawrence J. Cohen with plenty of sharp lines of wit. Completed on October 16, 1964, it made it to broadcast just over a month by the 19th of November. Again, the color episodes were the ones I saw mostly in my childhood but this one shocked me quite a bit as an eight or nine year old.

Poor Darrin. Unlike John Corbett’s Ian in MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, it isn’t just a simple procedure like getting baptized in a rubber tub in a Greek Orthodox Church to be accepted by the in-laws. He goes through pure torture here. Because Samantha wants to avoid dealing with Daddy being upset that he is not a warlock, she tries to keep him at bay at the bar…literally locked in the telephone booth with Larry Tate (David White) and others trying to pry him out.

Endora disguises him as a newspaper at one point and then daddy Maurice shoves him into the fireplace! In the final climax, one very angry Maurice literally blasts him into the stratosphere and only finally relents to both Endora and Samantha’s request to bring him back, shoes and clothes first.

Good thing that Darrin prepped himself with some spirits at the bar before his interrogation process. This show rivaled Cheers in the amount of alcohol consumed on screen, but always on ice. In fact, it is his knowledge of the right things to drink that spares him in the end: “Chantez de la mer” 53, not 59.

Maurice Evans may not have been the most prolific actor but, for a time in the sixties, he was in a lot of high profile entertainment. Most famously he was dressed as an orangutan lecturing Charlton Heston in PLANET OF THE APES and warned Mia Farrow’s Rosemary in ROSEMARY’S BABY of the “bad” witches. One could debate if he was always that “good” as a warlock in Bewitched since his temper on the show, even while reciting The Bard, was quite ferocious.

I always loved the interchange between Samantha’s “estranged” parents. Endora threatens to “move in with” Maurice if he does not cooperate and that always prompts a laugh out of me, since those two were likely only together long enough to produce Samantha. In their competing powers with their suffering son-in-law as the test subject, Maurice admits “you’re getting stronger, Endora” to which she responds “You’re getting older, dear” with the most wimpish expression on her face. Agnes Moorehead has always been one of my favorite old time stars.

One little goof in this episode that fans have pointed out: Darrin says he is from Missouri in the pilot but Samantha claims he is from Massachusetts here. No doubt he lived in both states. Missouri was necessary for an earlier plot point: she had to prove she was a witch to him because, as the state’s nickname implies, he needed her “to show me.” By this episode, he needed no further proof. Just the endurance to survive it all!

The Joker Is a Card

Another of the black and white shows widely available online in computerized color but we “purists” stick to the originals available on DVD.

Paul Lynde made his first appearance on the show as a disastrous driving instructor in 'Driving Is the Only Way to Fly,' broadcast March 25, 1965, and he was such a joy onscreen that the producers and Liz Montgomery were eager to have him back as a new character: Endora’s younger and constantly feuding brother, Arthur. In the follow-up show, The Joker Is a Card, which was filmed July 16 and aired October 14, Samantha’s favorite uncle made his debut literally headless on a dinner plate.

It is one of the most iconic comic scenes in sixties television but, to be honest, I am a little less enthralled by the overall plot of this one even though it pops up frequently in many TV top ten episode lists. Arthur plays a practical joke on Darrin by making him think he can zap Endora away with some “Yaga suzi, yaga suzi, yaga suzi, zim” incantation complete with a cow bell and, as a result, he is made to look like a fool. Revenge is sweet when Darrin, Endora and Samantha fool Arthur into thinking Darrin turned Endora into a parrot and is unable to reverse the spell.

Yup, that is it. The whole plot!

What makes it worth viewing is Paul’s performance. He substitutes a lion for an elephant when ripping off Groucho Marx’ 25 year old joke from ANIMAL CRACKERS (see original clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NfN_gcjGoJo ) and breaks out laughing before he can finish it. Also he poses in drag as a cleaning lady and trips Darrin with a mop, a sight that is funny simply because Paul is literally as high as a kite here and eerily resembling Anthony Perkins in PSYCHO.

There is one cute Beatles reference when Endora zaps Darrin’s hair to look like Ringo Starr’s. It is also satisfying on occasion to see Endora get a taste of her own medicine with Arthur giving her the ol’ eye ring gag with the opera glasses.

Paul appeared in nine more episodes through October 1970. Every one of them was memorable even if he was often better than the material that was given to him. For example, Samantha’s Power Failure (3-29-69) recycled the classic Lucy candy assembly line gag involving Arthur and “cousin” Serena (Elizabeth Montgomery’s wilder alter ego) struggling to keep up with chocolate covered bananas. The sequence itself holds up pretty well against the 1952 original (which producer William Asher had also worked on) even if the episode, as a whole, may be somewhat inferior to Lucy’s overall.

Also check out this October 1, 1966 clip from HOLLYWOOD PALACE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nxzuj3LQa00

The Short Happy Circuit of Aunt Clara

On May 19, 1968, this series became the first (and only one to date? Somebody correct me here) to receive a second posthumous Emmy Award. Elizabeth Montgomery, a nominee herself eight times but never a winner, accepted it on behalf of Marion Lorne who had died rather unexpectedly ten days prior. Alice Pierce previously won in 1966 two months after her own passing for playing the original Gladys Kravitz.

Always a delight as the bumbling and often incoherent Aunt Clara, viewers were never clear as to why Samantha called her that since she was neither a sister to Endora nor Maurice; my guess is that she was a great aunt related in another way. She frequently made her entrance down the chimney or through the closet door, with her silly fur stole all in a disarray and an umbrella that was never used when it was raining. Her hobby, like the real Marion’s off screen, was collecting doorknobs.

Her first appearance was a somewhat secondary role in the first season’s 'The Witches Are Out' but she made quite an impact assisting Samantha in impressing Darrin’s parents in the subsequent Samantha Meets the Folks (and Sam does not go through any of the insane torture Darrin goes through meeting her own parents). My favorite early episode of hers is probably 'There’s No Witch Like an Old Witch' in which she rediscovers a latent talent in kid sitting…and the kids all learn she is a witch while their mortal parents just laugh it all off as juvenile imaginations gone wild. Those silly mortals!

Some of the later Clara shows tend to be more predictable, but 'The Short Happy Circuit of Aunt Clara' is a fairly good one with enough material in it to fill a much longer show. Its inspiration comes from the November 8, 1965 great eastern U.S. / Canada power failure that later became comedy source material for a few movies such as the Doris Day vehicle WHERE WERE YOU WHEN THE LlGHTS WENT OUT? This full color episode was filmed July 25, 1966 and broadcast November 10th, two days after the anniversary date when it was still fresh on so many minds.

The suggestion here is that…of course!…Clara may or may not have been responsible. In the beginning, we get this whole romantic backstory between Clara and equally befuddled warlock Ocky, played by the legendary Reginald Owen whose filmography stretched back to 1911 but would be more recognized by viewers then for his more recent role in MARY POPPINS. He dumps her for a younger witch but later discovers she is a gold digger and is literally begging to have the doorknob collector back in his life. After she thinks she causes the mass blackout, he comes to her aid by at least getting the lights back on in the Stephenses house if not the Kravitzes, Tates or anybody else’s. Yet he has to keep his arms stretched up in order to do so.

No Clara episode is complete without some spells gone wrong. While babysitting Tabitha, she attempts to move a piano to the nursery by shrinking its size, only it starts popping back into its regular size while she is half way up the stairs! As usual, Gladys Kravitz (Sandra Gould) has to intrude and do her usual questioning. Later she completely faints at the sight of an invisible Ocky walking out of a closet with only his shoes showing and Abner (George Tobias) has to come retrieve the still breathing corpse.

Fortunately Gladys’ dilemma is a blessing for Darrin who had struggled earlier selling an ad pitch to a top shoe manufacturer MacAlroy (a very swarmy Arthur Julian) at the darkened residence of Larry and Louise Tate (David White and Kasey Rogers). For his part, MacAlroy is far more focused on all of the liquid spirits that this show is most famous for. When seeing Clara do a silly Scottish gig in order to distract anybody from being curious about who is hiding in the closet, he comments “well, at least she knows where the brandy is kept.”

Unlike Gladys, Clara was not later covered by another actress but another character was created in 1969 who shared a few of her bumbling characteristics: Esmeralda, who was played by Alice Ghostley and, most intriguingly, appeared alongside Marion in a famous scene of Mike Nichols’ THE GRADUATE but not on the show itself.

Weep No More My Willow

Only a select few Bewitched episodes could be labeled “classic” and this one hardly qualifies. Yet it does feature an unusual storyline, the usual excellent performance by star Elizabeth Montgomery (whom we always take for granted since she appears in every episode) and it has some nostalgic importance for me, being the first to be filmed after I was born…actually four days after (on July 11, 1968), but not broadcast until December 19. Apparently an episode of I Dream of Jeannie was closer in its filming date to my birthday (being a Sunday, not much was happening then) but this one is far more entertaining.

It does make you feel very old looking back at anything that shares your vintage, with York still playing Darrin before the great switch of actors, the vintage aqua blue Camaro and bright red Chevy Impala on display (and good luck finding those in mint condition without paying a fortune) and the mini skirt and solid white go-go boots sported by actress Sharon Vaughn.

Vaughn plays a neighbor whom Darrin offers to drive into town and, thus, prompts some questioning by both Larry Tate and Gladys Kravitz regarding his faithfulness to Samantha. David White gets a little more screen time and acting chops here than usual as the “concerned” boss visiting Samantha before Darrin has a chance to return home. I find Sandra Gould funnier than usual as Gladys here: when deciding to make brownies to take over and drum up some answers to her insatiable curiosity, Abner ominously asks “why? What did she ever do to you?” Obviously these brownies lack that all important ingredient used in the contemporary movie I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS.

Between his appearances aboard a doomed ship in two famous disaster movies, A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (1958) and TITANIC (1997), Welsh actor Bernard Fox kept himself busy in many memorable character parts (and voicing cartoon mice in two Disney RESCUERS movies) but will forever be remembered for the 19 times he was Doctor Bombay, a warlock (not witch) doctor if you ever need one. Much of the fun comes from him being interrupted from some silly activity away from his cosmic medical office, like scuba diving and fighting a shark, and appearing dressed as anything but a doctor.

Task at hand today: to resurrect a tree on the front lawn that Gladys is seeking a local ordinance to get chopped down since it looks like it is dying. Samantha loves the tree because Darrin got it for her when Tabitha was born and will fight ferociously to keep it. Yet Bombay restoring the tree causes a fall out effect on Samantha who either starts sobbing uncontrollably (quoting Stephen Foster) or laughs hysterically. This only adds to those who suspect the worst in the Stephenses’ marriage.

Although she wears the same dress in several episodes, the rose decor on this one fits the horticultural theme of this show. Samantha is the ultimate “Earth Mother” here. Life sometimes imitates art…and sometimes not.

Like her character on screen, Elizabeth Montgomery had children while working on the series: two sons and a daughter were born during this period. The latter two, Robert and Rebecca Asher, arrived roughly the same time as the on screen Tabitha and Adam Stephens, if off by a few months between filming and airing dates.

The on screen marriage between Samantha and Darrin was a faithful one despite all of the turmoil involving her eccentric relatives. Larry and Gladys had nothing to be concerned over and, amusingly, another episode filmed later in July 1968 (It’s Nice to Have a Spouse Around the House) featured Serena pretending to be Samantha and trying to avoid a secondary honeymoon trip with Darrin.

In contrast, the offscreen marriage between Elizabeth and William Asher wasn’t as successful in that department with both having affairs despite maintaining a loving relationship with their children and shared careers. ABC renewed the show for an additional two years but the couple wanted out by the end of 1971 and Asher tried to make it up to the network with new shows such as one starring Paul Lynde.

Later in life, Asher frequently took all of the blame for their marital problems himself and, despite both moving on with newer partners, he was still emotionally impacted by her death from cancer in 1995 and never stopped loving and speaking well of her in interviews until his memory started to go from Alzheimer’s. (He died at almost 91 in 2012.) Today the child stars are the primary survivors of a series that ended five decades ago this March.

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