Tuesday, April 25, 2006

"My Name's Friday" - 5 Years Later

I'd requested a color section for My Name's Friday, but it wasn't in the publisher's budget. So now I get to post one.

My Name's Friday was released five years ago; since that time I've been interviewed on broadcast, satellite and internet radio, as well as on cable TV, countless times. The first question is almost always the same: "What made you decide to write a book about Jack Webb and Dragnet?"

The answer is simple: the man and the show deserved one.

By the time My Name’s Friday came out, Webb and his most famous creation had taken quite a drubbing over the years, most recently at the hands of cable’s TV LAND. Once upon a time, TV LAND trumpeted its vision of “preserving our television heritage.” No less an icon than Dick Van Dyke was its spokesperson. Yet once they got their hands on Dragnet (specifically the revival series Dragnet 1967-70), they turned Webb’s Joe Friday into a joke; an extension of Dan Aykroyd’s parody version from the 1987 feature film. Instead of celebrating Dragnet’s undeniable influence on police drama, or Webb’s contribution to television, TV LAND’s promos simply made Sgt. Friday out to be a humorless, obtuse, one-dimensional police hack, blind to the flaws of the Department he served.
This approach was in keeping with latter-day criticism, which belittled Dragnet for being reactionary, for brooking no shades of grey, for unrealistically portraying the counterculture, for daring to suggest that the LAPD stands for honesty, integrity and solid police work. Granted, a few episodes from the revival years unwittingly provided ammunition for critics, but it was irresponsible to tar the entire series with the same brush – and yet, that’s what happened.

More distressing was how latter-day TV producers – with the notable exception of Dick Wolf – tried to distance themselves from Webb and his “controlled,” “deadpan” approach to filmmaking. Richard Levinson and William Link (Columbo), Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues) and others went on record declaring that Dragnet had no influence on their shows – or if it did, that they went out of their way to do the opposite.

But it’s no use. As I wrote in the Epilogue: “Every time a TV cop questions a colorful witness, uses a code number to describe a crime, advises a suspect of his rights, fills out paperwork, or engages in light banter with his or her partner, the spirit of Sgt. Friday is there. Every drama series of any genre that heightens suspense through close-ups, music and terse dialogue is walking down the trail blazed by Jack Webb.”

I did not want it forgotten that, back in the day, Webb was hailed as a genius – the man who had lifted TV out of the dark ages. Dragnet proved that television drama did not have to be live to be critically acclaimed or highly rated. With his liberal use of close-ups, Webb proved the intimacy of television would be its greatest asset. The rerun series, Badge 714, proved to TV execs that off-network syndication was where real profits could be had. The 1954 feature proved that audiences would pay to see their favorites on the big screen. The 1967 revival proved that a cancelled series could make a successful return.

And so I wrote My Name’s Friday. Would it make a difference? I certainly hoped so. Leonard Maltin called me and said he thought the book was “dynamite – just terrific.” The Mystery Writers of America – one of the first professional bodies to recognize Dragnet’s greatness, thrice honoring it with its distinguished Edgar Allan Poe Award - accorded My Name’s Friday the honor of an Edgar nomination.

The week the book was released, TV LAND pulled Dragnet 1967-70 from its schedule.

Five years later, sadly not much has changed. Webb’s oeuvre has not undergone any sort of critical re-evaluation – his legacy has gone from genius, to joke, to invisible. Four years ago, Dick Wolf brought Dragnet back as an hour-long drama that, despite mostly positive reviews, was ignored by audiences; an attempt to “revitalize” the format proved a disaster. Last year, Universal Home Video released a DVD set of the seventeen Dragnet 1967 episodes – arguably the best of the revival years. Sales were only fair, and there are no present plans to market the remaining three seasons, much less provide an authorized release of the original series. Consequently, it’s unlikely that the Webb theatrical features (Pete Kelly’s Blues, The D.I., etc.) will ever receive the special edition treatment. It’s our loss.

In 1987, director William Friedkin (The French Connection) said, “I’ve never seen a better police show than Dragnet.” There’s a reason for that.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Hello, Angie Dickenson!

I was a little late in learning that there's an Angie Dickenson blog-a-thon going on around the web today (details here: http://sergioleoneifr.blogspot.com/2006/04/angie-dickinson-woman-next-door.html). And since this blog's focus is television, I thought I'd post the following TV Guide cover. Anybody know which one's Angie?

Yep - the brunette on the left. I may be wrong in ascribing this as Angie's first major public appearance, but I haven't seen anything earlier around the web this morning! This issue is from October 1953... and Angie was one of six winners of the "T-Venus" competition, for which the prize would be to appear on The Colgate Comedy Hour during the 1953-54 season. I haven't yet determined on which date(s) the appearance(s) took place, but perhaps a more savvy Angiephile has that information.

Here's the article:

Friday, April 14, 2006

You Asked For It: The Our Gang Reunion

I once worked with a gentleman, retired from the business, who began his career as a production assistant on this show. He had a few stories to tell about Art Baker and producer Cran Chamberlain, which I'm sorry to say I've long forgotten, and he lamented the loss of a 16mm "blooper reel," which reportedly included some quick shots of Mr. Baker downing a few quick shots of his own from an ever-present flask, while off-stage.

On one slow afternoon, I brought in the You Asked For It tape available from Shokus Video (now offered on DVD as well), and we watched it. My friend remembered that, like the big money quiz shows later in the decade, this little series was also partially "controlled" - or fixed, if you prefer. Unusual acts or stunts would be submitted to the producers, who would fabricate letters requesting these things, and it would be the faces of the production or clerical staff (including that of my friend, "more than once") that would appear on the Skippy Peanut Butter jars, representing these non-existent viewers.

The first episode on the tape was the one that closed with the reunion of the Our Gang kids from the silent era. First, a few pictures of the original Gang were shown.

From left to right, Jackie Condon, Joe Cobb, Mary Kornman, Mickey Daniels, Johnny Downs and Allen "Farina" Hoskins. Then came the reunion.

Ugh. Beanies and short pants. Baker announced that Mary Kornman was ill and unable to attend. That was our loss; a pretty face would certainly have been welcome among this motley bunch!

I asked my friend if the gang had been difficult to round up. He said no, but added that Farina was the easiest to locate: "He was working as a janitor for the building across the street from our studio."

At the time, Johnny Downs was the only one still in show business - he'd just begun hosting his own children's show in San Diego.

Mickey Daniels gave out his trademark horse laugh, displaying more than a few missing teeth. After this, none of the gang would ever see him again.

Joe Cobb and Jackie Condon had both left the business, although Jackie was still seeking work as an actor, without much luck. Not long after this, he'd give it up and join Joe in the aeronautic defense industry.

Then there were some surprises for the "kids":

Mrs. Fern Carter, the gang's private teacher...

cinematographer Art Lloyd...

and Robert F. "Uncle Bob" McGowan, who directed the very

best Our Gang Comedies for over 15 years.

In their book The Little Rascals: The Life and Times of Our Gang, Richard K. Bann and Leonard Maltin refer to the You Asked For It reunion as "a slapdash affair... but a nostalgic treat nonetheless." Watching it over 50 years later, it seems more of the latter. Seeing Farina Hoskins and Johnny Downs respectfully greet Bob McGowan - their long-time director/father figure - is touching. Here was the man who shaped the template for all of the Gang incarnations to come. Look at the wagon photograph, and simply replace Joe with Spanky, Mickey with Alfalfa, Mary with Darla, Jackie with Porky, Johnny with Butch, and Farina with Buckwheat.

Silent Our Gangs can be found on DVD from dealers such as Grapevine and Finders Keepers Video.

And so we leave Art Baker to close out this fond reminder of a classic group of films (which would not reach TV until about four years later), and some of the people who made them. Thank you, You Asked For It... whether or not any real viewer actually did.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Television Trivia Flashback

It's trivia time, folks!

A good friend sent me this insert, courtesy of Sara Lee cakes, that had appeared in a 1989 issue of People magazine, and I couldn't resist posting it.

All-in-all, it's a nice capsule history of the best of 1950's TV... although I can't imagine anyone selecting Father Knows Best over Leave it to Beaver as the "perfect TV family." Certainly Billy Gray, who played Bud Anderson, has made it known through the years that the lessons taught on Father Knows Best "were 180 degrees wrong." Ironically, in the plot described herein, the apparent moral is that deceit can be a good thing if it's used to reinforce the family.

I also have some quibbles with the fact-finding. A few urban legends, such as Vivian Vance's contractual obligation to remain 20 lbs heavier than Lucille Ball, and Jack Webb's non-utterance "Just the facts, ma'am," are reinforced. There's also this strange piece of Dragnet trivia: "From 1953 to 1955, Dragnet was syndicated as Badge 714 while Webb put the series on on hold to act in and direct films." Badge 714 did begin in syndication in 1953, and Webb did produce Dragnet episodes ahead of schedule in order to further his theatrical feature ambitions, but one thing had nothing to do with the other.

On the plus side, the information about The Adventures of Superman is spot on. The plot described is from "The Big Forget" (1957), my favorite episode as a child. It's wishful thinking on my part, but I'd sure love to be the "expert" who provides commentary for that episode on the final Superman box set. (Well, I did write an article about the 1957 season for Jim Nolt's The Adventures Continue fanzine. Does that help, Warner Brothers?)

Anyway, enjoy a piece of Sara Lee cheesecake as you read these pages. Oh, and the trivia questions (for which the answers are provided upside-down on the last 3 pages) are as follows:

1) What was "Beaver" Cleaver's true first name?

2) What is this marionette's first name? (Hint: in Texas, it means "Hello!")

3) Grandpa and the rest of the Munsters lived at what unlucky address?

Thursday, April 06, 2006

"Hail His Majesty the Sun!"

For the earliest members of the TV generation, this cartoon was omnipresent.

In his book, Of Mice and Magic, Leonard Maltin wrote that his childhood included "countless viewings" of The Sunshine Makers (1935). No less an authority than my mother vividly recalls it as one of the very first things she ever watched on television in 1952 - and that it was on practically all the time. Even after having not seen the cartoon for a half-century, she could still sing "Hail His Majesty the sun" perfectly.

The listing is from a New York City edition of TV Guide for June 1956, three years before I was born. I grew up in the NYC Metro area, but I don't recall Sunshine Makers, "Uncle Joe" or any kiddie shows on WABC, except maybe on Saturday mornings. I also don't remember cartoon titles being listed in TV Guide. It's nice to know that they once did that, just as it's nice to see that the stations had something for everybody during that half-hour - too bad there was only one set per TV household back then.

Once the major studios sold their cartoon libraries to TV, and stations got their hands on actual "stars" like Popeye, Bugs Bunny and Mighty Mouse, shorts like Sunshine Makers were consigned to oblivion.

Sunshine Makers was apparently produced independently by Ted Eshbaugh in 1933 for the Borden company. I don't know an awful lot about Eshbaugh, except that he was one of the earliest animation directors to work with color, and that he'd done a lot of independent work - including a cartoon version of The Wizard of Oz, which I understand is an extra on Warner Brothers' DVD release of the classic Judy Garland feature.

Two years later, the Van Beuren Studios in New York City

released the film to theaters - their output was distributed by RKO Radio Pictures and Eshbaugh was now working there as a director - as part of their "Rainbow Parade" cartoon series. The ad shown is from April 1935 for the Ritz Theater in Anniston, Alabama.

Fifteen years before U.P.A. was hailed for breakthroughs in the use of light, color and shadow in animation, this little gem was blazing the trail. Granted, it was hamstrung by the Cinecolor process, which only utilized blue and red tints. But I suspect that if a pristine 35mm print were to emerge, a few prominent film historians might sit up and take notice.The story is simplicity itself. The happy elves harness the sun to produce "bottled sunshine." The gloomy elves ("We're happy when we're sad") that live in the dark forest next door try to stir up trouble. This leads to a full-fledged battle that they are destined to lose, for goodness and light will always triumph.

Van Beuren went out of business in 1937, just after RKO Radio signed a distribution deal with Walt Disney. The cartoon library was divvied up between several interested parties - Guaranteed Pictures, Commonwealth Pictures, Official Films; all ancient history now. Eventually, the Van Beuren films fell into the public domain, but thanks to the dollar DVDs you can find at Wal-Mart, Target or almost any $1 store, Sunshine Makers is once more omnipresent. Look for it - if you enjoy cartoons, it's a title well worth owning.