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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

HISTORY LESSON: TV Movie [Stars] - Part 2

The beautiful Ava Gardner shows her versatility as a special celebrity
guest on the quiz show "What's My Line?"

I Have to Be Home by 8:00, Because...!

There were definitely some major successes in the Movie to TV migration. Whether certain personalities were simply better suited for the small screen or were likewise more seemingly approachable and likable, there are a handful of Lords and Ladies who amplified their power simply by taking their comfy place in people's living rooms. One such person was comedian extraordinaire Groucho Marx (left), whose grease-painted mustache had long been replaced by the real thing. Always a popular guest and the hit of every party he attended, it only make sense that he be the favorite part of any piece of television he poked his ever-rolling eyes into. Not only was he regularly offered guest host spots on the likes of "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" or "Tonight with Jack Paar," he also participated on "What's My Line?" and even an episode of "Hollywood Squares."

Clearly, America was still Coconuts for him. Thus, after an improvised radio broadcast with Bob Hope sparked the idea, he became the host of his own game show on NBC: "You Bet Your Life." If you've ever noticed that a duck is often associated with Groucho, look to this show for the reason-- in addition to Duck Soup, of course. The format was simple. Average, American guests would be invited on the show where Grouch' would improvise, make conversation with them, and poke fun (right). In essence, he used his wit to draw out many a laugh from the viewing audience as the embarrassed participants turned beet-faced at his shenanigans. Finally, the guest duo would be asked a series of questions from a category of their choosing. In addition to this, there was a "secret word" that Groucho would try to get the players to innocently say in the midst of conversation. If they accidentally uttered it, the infamous duck would descend from the ceiling with a $100 bill in his bill. The show was such a success that the metaphorical ball was later passed to Bill Cosby as host in 1992, but Groucho-- as usual-- was the instigator!

Women in particular seemed to have luck with television, as in the following two examples. Perhaps this is because actual housewives and stay-at-home moms were able to use TV as a daily gateway to the outside world, which their husbands so often took for granted. Having classy, strong, and relatable women telling their stories for them seemed to be a gift from heaven for den mothers, but the fellas enjoyed these shows too. The case of Donna Reed is particularly fascinating. In a little over a decade, Donna had worked her way up from supporting roles in Shadow of the Thin Man and The Courtship of Andy Hardy to an Oscar win for From Here to Eternity. A shrewd business woman, she experimented with television cautiously as it slowly gained its dominion, and in 1958 she signed on for her own series, appropriately titled "The Donna Reed Show" (left). 

Very similar to the recent hit "Leave It to Beaver, " the show was a tribute to the all American family-- or at least the all American family dream-- where misunderstandings and common family problems are humorously and touchingly dealt with. The moral of the show hit home for most viewers with its uplifting storylines, which boosted morale on the home front, and promised not so much that good will come if you do the right thing, but that doing the right thing is just the right thing to do. It was a huge hit that earned Donna a Golden Globe and ran successfully for 8 seasons. Finally, after preaching that a family that sticks together stays together, Donna was burnt out by the weekly demands of the show, and the series came to an end. Donna worked intermittently on other series-- "The Love Boat," "Dallas"-- but with the unprecedented success of the show behind her, she soon put TV behind her too.

Doris Day was always a fan favorite. With her cheery onscreen persona, bright and crystalline singing voice, and average American gal disposition, she became a huge movie star and an obvious candidate for television success. Yet, with a surprisingly complicated and sometimes devastating personal life contrasting her public identity, Doris's entertainment career was both an emotional saving grace and a hefty burden that added to the intensifying pressure cooker of her sanity. But, a girl's gotta eat. Thus, when her contribution to cinema came to a halt in 1968-- after television had more than injected its influence over the American way of life-- she made the jump to CBS to star in her own series: "The Doris Day Show." Despite the show's title, Doris's character was not named Doris Day on the show but Doris Martin-- just as Jean Arthur was Patricia Marshall on "The Jean Arthur Show" and Donna Reed played Donna Stone on "The Donna Reed Show." The lack of creativity in the show's title was simply a marketing ploy by the network to benefit from the celebrity's star power and get viewers to tune in. (Doris in the Season 2 Christmas Special, right).

With Doris, CBS knew they were getting plenty of bank for their buck. Doris's program ran for five seasons but progressed in a very peculiar fashion. The fish out of water plot line essentially followed Doris's widowed character and her two sons as they moved to the country from their posh city lives and bunked up at her family's farm. The usual chaos and hijinks ensued. Strangely, every season altered after the first, with Doris and her sons changing locales, she changing careers, and eventually the sons disappearing from the story completely. Still, the awkward nature of the storyline did not stop viewers from watching one of their favorite celebs every week. It did surprisingly well, and due to its lengthy run (in a world where most series were lucky to make it one season if any), it can be reasonably considered a bona fide success. 

After "The Doris Day Show" came to an end in 1973, Doris basically retired from acting, though she did have another series as a talk show hostess on a program entitled "Doris Day's Best Friends." On the show, she would reminisce with old showbiz pals about the good ol' days on the silver screen and, once again, allow the production company to capitalize off aging nostalgia for Hollywood gone bye-bye. Her first guest on the show was none other than Rock Hudson, her three time collaborator and good friend (left in Lover Come Back). This was, of course, a remarkable moment for viewers and Doris herself, who hadn't seen her former co-star in years. Unbeknownst to her, Rock was already deep in the throes of his battle with AIDs. He had been aware of his illness for a year, having been diagnosed in 1984. When he made his appearance on the show in 1985, his shocking weight loss and sickly disposition had a shattering effect on Doris. Rock would announce his disease mere days after the broadcast and would pass away in less than three months. Thus, what was meant to be a beautiful reunion was practically the bittersweet final note to her pitch-perfect career. "Doris Day's Best Friends" would continue for one season and 26 episodes. Aside from occasional personal appearances, Doris would bid Hollywood farewell, and much like her earlier Doris Martin character, return to a simpler and more private life away from chaos in Carmel, CA.

It's Show Time!

The business of Television is hard. No matter the talent behind the show's writing, nor the creativity of the storyline, nor the appeal of the performers, the comprised efforts don't always result in a hit. Nothing is surefire. All sorts of factors can effect a show's reception-- a competitive time slot, varying audience tastes, a poor chemistry amongst the cast, etc. What seems a possible runaway hit on paper can often tank on the air. Famous or not, TV is a gamble for anyone. A bunch of unknown, struggling actors shot to fame on "Friends" in 1994, and the show ran for 10 seasons; acclaimed actor Dustin Hoffman took at stab at "Luck" in 2011 on HBO only to receive poor ratings, and now the show's tenuous second season hangs by a thread. To even produce a pilot is a success. To be picked up by a network is a glory rarely received. To make it through an entire first season is astounding. Those few programs that run for years and really grip the public are pure miracles. There aren't many, and there are even fewer that will be remembered as classics after the series finale, but some of our superstar wonders were actually able to dine on an exclusive slice of TV heaven instead of sulking over a plate of humble pie.

Loretta Young was a lovely and vulnerable looking young girl when she landed her first major role in the Lon Chaney film Laugh, Clown, Laugh in 1928. Over the next 25 years, she would develop into a powerhouse female lead in numerous major motion pictures. Known as the "Iron Butterfly" for her killer combo of delicate, pre-Raphaelite beauty (left) and a tough and ambitious business savvy, Loretta boasts one of the most impressive resumes in cinematic history. Realizing quickly that television was the wave of the future, she wasted no time in jumping head first into the new medium. Her series, "The Loretta Young Show," was another anthology series that produced a fresh drama every week. She was the first woman to host her own show, and her grand entrance at the beginning of every episode in a new, drop-dead-gorgeous gown was the perhaps the most eagerly anticipated moment of the program.

Like Errol Flynn, Loretta would do an introduction at the episode's opening, and the story would commence with a different plot each week-- akin to the TV movie-- with varying actors. She sometimes would appear in an episode herself. The glamour plus the salivating drama made Loretta's show a huge success that ran for 8 seasons on NBC from 1953-1961. In 1963, she switched networks to CBS to appear in another series, "The New Loretta Young Show," this time strictly acting as a widow who supported herself as a freelance writer. Yet again, though the title bore her name, Loretta played character Christine Massey. The tone of the show bore touches of both drama and comedy, but it only lasted one season. Audiences apparently wanted Loretta to appear only as her glamorous self. Fifty-years-old by the time filming ended, Loretta enjoyed working on a few TV movies and settled into retirement a very wealthy woman-- not to mention a big and small screen legend.

The award for consistency and duration goes to one of the great funnymen of history-- and good pal of Groucho Marx-- Jack Benny (right). From vaudeville, to radio, to film, Benny seamlessly translated his humor to any given outlet. With his always immaculate comedic timing, hilariously underplayed facial expressions, and somehow likable buffoon characterizations-- imagine an uptight Steve Carell in "The Office"-- there was no one immune to his jocular abilities. Unafraid of being the butt of his own jokes, Benny's most infamous persona was that of the irritable miser who both refused to admit he was older than 39 and played the violin abominably (although he was a great proficient in reality). His great gag was the hold-up sketch. The mugger would point his gun and yell, "Your money or your life!" to which, after a breadth of silence and more prodding, Benny would reply, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking!" His great success, specifically on the radio on "The Jack Benny Program," was quickly transferred to television in 1950 on CBS where it ran for fifteen straight years.

Previous to this and during the show's run, he would make appearances on other programs, including the "GE True Theatre" and "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show," but with  his own primetime spot, he blew all other competition out of the water. His was the show everyone wanted to watch and no one wanted to miss, including everyone from the town butcher, baker, and candlestick-maker to JFK himself. As was the general standard of the time, at each show's beginning, Benny would come out to greet the viewers with an opening monologue and likewise finish the show with a closer. In between, anything was possible in the life of Jack Benny. So closely was he identified with his TV character, that a cab driver, for example, was shocked to receive such a large tip from him in real life! In the end, counting its radio days, "The Jack Benny Program" ran for three decades, finally coming to a conclusion in 1965, the last year of which was filmed at NBC. Benny would bow out while still on top and his presence in the homes of many was deeply missed. Luckily, he would still pop up from time to time on "The Bob Hope Show"or "Kraft Music Hall" before his death in 1974.

Of course, despite Jack Benny's long term hold on the public, there is but one person who is forever identified as the all-time favorite TV personality: Lucille Ball. After struggling vainly for years in her attempts to become a film actress, Lucy could never seem to achieve success at the B-level of filmmaking. Despite her great beauty, there was an earthy, unfinished quality that kept her from being a glamour queen of the silver screen like Carole Lombard. Despite her talent in acting, audiences had trouble relating to her intensity or emotion the same way they could with Katharine Hepburn. It was her union with the ambitious Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz and her coincidental gig on the radio program "My Favorite Husband" in 1948 that brought her the opportunity of a lifetime. When a deal was struck to take the show from the airwaves to the TV set, Lucy brought her husband and collaborator with her, and the rest is history for eternity. The over-the-top comedy of the Ricardos was hilarious, decent, and relatable. Through "I Love Lucy" (left), the lady herself proved that a woman could be both attractive and a total ham-- and even a basket case. Despite her frustrating antics and the unbelievable amount of trouble she caused each week, she also made a bold feminist statement that a woman need not be perfect to be loved. It was all the varying shades of both devotion and insanity that drew Ricky Ricardo to his red-headed, adorably vexatious bride. Through Ricky's performing career, the trials of parenthood, and from New York to Hollywood to Europe and back, the Ricardo family endured both despite and because of their mix of irritation and passion.

Unfortunately, the real life marriage of Lucy and Desi would not fare so well. Their turbulent and stormy union, which had made such beautiful music publicly, was a private Hell. The "I Love Lucy" show enjoyed six seasons of phenomenal success despite the increasingly venomous relationship the couple shared behind the scenes. Agreeing that the show was worth saving even if the marriage wasn't, "I Love Lucy" changed in format for its 7-9th seasons, becoming hour long episodes that roughly added up to four per year. The guest stars continued, with everyone from John Wayne to Milton Berle making an appearance at some point during the 9 years of "I Love Lucy" and  "The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour." Yet, it finally became clear that the temperaments of the two stars could not bear much more. The program came to a close in 1960 and Lucy left Desi and co-star William Frawley behind to start her own series with Vivan Vance, otherwise known as Ethel, who reluctantly agreed to continue the next chapter of the characters' friendship on "The Lucy Show" (right). This storyline involved the new lives of the widowed Lucy and the divorced Viv, which was clearly a popular plot instigator for a lot of aging female actresses on TV at the time. While Jack Benny-- who shot his own program at the Desilu Studios-- made a few appearances on this series, and several other guest stars popped in, the show's success would not match the brilliance of the original. Still, it lasted six more seasons and was later followed by "Here's Lucy!" which followed a new Lucy Carter as a widowed mother of teenagers again making it on her own. This made it for 6 more surprising seasons, mostly due to Lucy's power than to the show's material. Her final stab at TV came in the brief, single season series "Life with Lucy," now portraying Lucy Barker and her adventures as a grandmother. 

From 1950 10 1986, Lucille Ball made a huge impact on the world of Television, giving it an integrity born of her humanity, drive, and humor that made it more welcoming to those still-questioning film celebrities who feared this mysterious new vehicle for their talents. Clearly, not everyone would enjoy Lucy's success, and in truth, with her personal anxiety, she never really did either, but "I Love Lucy" in particular remains the show that took the little engine that could and made it an uncompromising force of overwhelming power. Today, because of the foundation that people like Ball, Benny, Young, and numerous other personalities of boob tube fame made, the world of television continues to grow exponentially. From "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" (1962-1992), to "Bewitched" with Elizabeth Montgomery (1964-1972), to "The Cosby Show" with Bill Cosby (1984-1992), to "30 Rock" with Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin (2006-2013), the medium continues to expand. NBC, HBO, FX, sitcoms, soaps, dramas, live, recorded on DVRs, and available post-season on DVD, we continue to expand the possibilities of entertainment, which may not be as focused nor as controlled as it once was but is certainly more varied. Though the presence of thousands of channels can be overwhelming, there is literally something for everyone. Thus, single-theater towns temporarily inhabited by rotating cast of players merely passing through on their vaudeville circuit has become a chosen program on demand starring your favorite actors at the touch of your fingertips. 

Don Adams would portray the incompetent secret agent Maxwell Smart on "Get Smart" 
in the late 1960s on television and, in a role reversal, Steve Carell would bring
the same character to life in the movies in 2008.

While one may often question the integrity of "What Would Ryan Lochte Do?" one can be reminded of the great creativity and bold behind-the-scenes choices of programmers, producers, writers, and actors by seeing glimpses of past brilliance in today's more intriguing, provocative, and evocative series. Lucy can be found in Amy Poehler, the dramatic Loretta Young style may be glimpsed through series like "The Good Wife," and Jack Benny's unconventional family humor has been updated and modernized via "Louie." The couch has provided a more comfortable place for us to participate in and observe our ever-changing society as it grows, changes, and stays the same. And so, as Sonny and Cher said, "The beat goes on..."


  1. Thanks for 2 great and informative posts! I had never known Jean Arthur had attempted a series.

    Surprised you didn't include Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, both of whom had variety series with vastly differing results. (And The Jimmy Stewart Show is currently available on Warner Archive Instant -- though a little goes a long way...)

    And one quibble; Vivian Vance's character, Vivian Bagley, on The Lucy Show was a divorcee, Lucy was the widow.

    1. Believe me, there were so many people I wanted to include, but I was running out of room! I may be back with a part three sometime in the future!!!

      Thanks for the clarification with Vivian. I will update the article accordingly. I'm glad you enjoyed and appreciate you supporting the blog! Take care :)