Getting in the Mood

TV themes. Do you remember when they lasted longer than only a couple of seconds? When the sound of your favorite show put you in the mood for an episode of fun, suspense or tears? Did you know the lyrics by heart? Did you recite them or sing along? Do you still find yourself humming those songs while you cook, do laundry or are cleaning up? Do they still put you in a good mood like they used to? Bring back memories of characters once dear to you like friends or relatives?

Today, a lot of shows save up time by using trademark teasers rather than songs that last longer than a mere moment. Castle, Malibu Country, The Good Wife are some of my favorite examples. If you sneeze, you may miss the catchy intro. Sad news for anyone who suffers from hay fever or catches a cold. There are exceptions no doubt: Elementary Downton Abbey or Rizzoli & Isles. I enjoy all of these shows once in a while but the less new programs offer a catchy melody or song, the more I miss that positive trigger classic television used to lure me in. Granted, for the sake of commercials, screen time has been cut down over the years. While a Perry Mason episode still lasted an average of 50 minutes and Bewitched an entertaining 25, most shows only get 43 (or 21) minutes today. So while it was great to hum along to Family Affair or Hart to Hart in the past, it makes sense for Go On to save up time and use those theme song seconds for the storyline.

Although I know the reasons and appreciate a couple of contemporary programs for their beautiful tunes, I still miss those beautiful TV songs that used to stick with me all week. Bugs Bunny, The Mickey Mouse Club, The Flintstones. I Love Lucy, The Muppets, Bill Cosby, Growing Pains. Murder She Wrote, Family Ties, The Golden Girls. Love Boat. Cagney and LaceyScarecrow and Mrs. King. Even shows I didn’t like for anything but their catchy themes such as Family Matters or Full House. Do you still remember your favorite melodies?!

America in Primetime

In 2011, PBS presented America in Primetime, a documentary in four parts about the history of television. Focusing on the evolution of the Independent Woman, the Man of the House, the Misfit and Crusader, each episodes offered a look back at the beginning of mainstream television in the 1950s until today. Blessed with a great variety of popular interviewees, America in Primetime was an ambitious project with names such as Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Ron Howard, David Lynch and Shonda Rhimes attached to it. Unfortunately however, the series did not live up to its potential and rarely offered controversy about contemporary perception. For years, it’s been in vogue to bash the 50s and idealize the 1960 and 70s, for example, but from the announcement of this PBS production I had expected otherwise.

It’s always easy to look at a bygone era with modern eyes without looking underneath the surface. But no matter how much I am personally tickled by Lucille Ball, the 1950s had more to offer than just I Love Lucy, The Donna Reed Show and Leave it to Beaver. I was surprised, to say the least, when I didn’t hear a mention of Betty White and her already flourishing career and bewildered, like so often, when Mary Richards was called the first single working girl on television. Whatever happened to Connie Brooks and Della Street? After all, not every female character (despite their feminine appeal) was “just” a housewife, a job many (post-)feminists still seem to wrestle with.

Male characters of that era weren’t appraised more adequately either. I mean, Ralph Kramden may have been a prototype for characters like Fred Flintstone or Homer Simpson, but he was already a caricature back in his time and not just a regular guy. Jim Anderson from Father Knows Best, as another popular example, was also more flawed than critics often depict him today. His wholesome attitude and simple answers may have fostered the image of the omnipotent father, but only on the surface – he was wrong too often with his fatherly assessments to call him a picture perfect patriarch.

But America in Primetime doesn’t like to dig deeper and rather creates an odd summary of female liberation (and correlated emasculation of male role models) on TV. Murphy Brown, Sex and the City and Grey’s Anatomy serve as notable examples along with The Good Wife‘s Kalinda Sharma. Positive role models such as The Cosby Show‘s Clair Huxtable, Maggie Seaver from Growing Pains, Designing Women or The Golden Girls don’t even get a mention and I wonder if it’s their grace and domesticity or their love for men that interferes with the desired image of women who favor their careers over everything else.

All in all, America in Primetime – like other documentaries before – celebrates the evolution of television from the simple, archaic days of the 1950s to a supposed golden age of the 2000s (predominantly on pay TV). By celebrating the creation of broken and disturbed characters whose complexity supports the audience’s alleged desire for drama and realism, the program may appeal to anyone who enjoys shows like Nurse Jackie, The Sopranos, Mad Men or Breaking Bad. For anyone who prefers dignity, subtlety and moderation in storytelling, the documentary may draw the wrong conclusions about a bygone era and leave a taste of bias in your mouth. Personally, I was dissatisfied with the fragmented glimpse into TV history and the overwhelming number of present-day TV makers as a primary interview source. But with my fondness for vintage that may not come as a surprise.

The Lucy Show

TV classics: The Lucy Show

USA 1962-68, six seasons, 156 episodes 30 minutes each, CBS, black & white (first season) and color (seasons 2 through 6). Narrated by: Roy Rowan, Cast: Lucille Ball, Vivian Vance, Gale Gordon, Mary Jane Croft, Candy Moore, Ralph Hart, Jimmy Garrett, Dick Martin

Plot summary:  Lucy Carmichael, a widowed mother of two, lives with her divorcée friend Vivian Bagley and her son. Together, they master the ups and downs of everyday life, including money troubles and men.

Review: On Monday, Lucille Ball would have turned 101. In loving memory of a comedienne who has remained popular for many decades on television until today, I have decided to have a look at her first show without Desi Arnaz, The Lucy Show which is available on DVD (some of you may be pleased to know).

Two years after the completion of Lucy-and-Desi-Comedy-Hour in 1960, Lucille Ball returned to playing another incarnation of her famous Lucy character on CBS. Starting out in black and white and insisting on her original I Love Lucy time slot on Monday nights, Ms. Ball and her network did not expect her new show to last longer than a season. Reunited with co-star Vivian Vance from her previous hit show, her new format, however, was instantly embraced by her audience, as well as by the industry, rewarding her with a two Emmy awards and two additional nominations.

Starting out as a widowed mother of two, the new Lucy lived with her best friend Vivian, TV’s first divorcée mother, and had to face the challenges of everyday life as a single parent. Undergoing many changes in casting and plot throughout its six successful seasons, The Lucy Show proved to be a steady favorite on CBS and featured guest stars such as Ann Sothern. Shot in color from its second season on but broadcast in black and white till 1965, the show also did well in ratings until Lucille Ball bowed out of her own show after selling Desilu Productions. She moved on to star in Here’s Lucy for another six years, a show her new production company Lucille Ball Productions owned the rights to and thus continued the tradition of Lucille Ball having control over own program.

The Lucy Show sample episode

The Art of Film-Making

I just recently had a conversation with my aunt who reminded me, once again, how little people know about the art of film-making. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s nothing essential, but for an industry that lives on creating images and myths, I find it interesting how inadequate a picture it draws of its most crucial bees in the hive. We all know that actors are important, that they put a face to a story and fill it with life, but who would they play without a script, who would they be without a director who guides them through it?

I know, during awards season, certain names are mentioned from time to time – directors more often than producers, editors or cinematographers. Thing is, it’s a process to create a film and takes a village to carry it from that first sparkle of an idea to an actual theater near you. It often takes years to raise the necessary money and many films are never made for many different reasons – from the studio system until today, some things never change.

Generally speaking however, film-making is hard work and requires skill, sweat and imagination. You need enthusiasm, a thick skin and dedication, no matter what position you are working in. From the set runner to assistants or the wardrobe department, if you don’t love your job, it will affect the production. And while that may be true for any job, be sure to know that film people rarely work on a regular schedule and are constantly looking for a new project to sink their teeth into. So if you don’t love what you do, why bother? Why put up with the hassle of possibly never seeing your project come to life?

If you’re working in the creative industry, failure, disappointments and frustration are as common as the flu. If you can’t deal with it, it’ll eat you up. So no matter how, if you want to write, compose or act, direct, produce or design, find your coping mechanism, because success is not easy to come by. Surround yourself with supporters, not with people who like to bathe in the possibility of meeting celebrities. Casting shows and gossip paper articles about actors and their supposed fairytale lives have shaped many people’s perception of an industry that has always relied on reinventing their own achievements and popular faces. Don’t buy into what they tell you and learn by doing what it means to make a film. And if you can spare a minute, sit down and imagine how different your favorite movie would’ve looked like with a different cast, score or coloring – it may give you a perspective of all the jobs that were pivotal to make it. Just look at Perry Mason, at Warren William’s portrayal in the 30s compared to Raymond Burr’s two decades later. The same character performed in such a different style and manner. Both perfectly cast if you ask me, but still so unalike in their delivery.

And while I’m at it, I’ve always thought that Barbara Hale would’ve been a beautiful Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life and I’m convinced that Raymond Burr would’ve tackled Stanley Kowalski in a hauntingly impressive way. Daydreaming aside, I also appreciate the wonderful casting we’ve seen in both projects and give kudos to the casting directors who managed to merge talent with chemistry. The Donna Reed Show is another example of a job well done and so is I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, and Our Miss Brooks. For my dream project, I always cast Bill Williams for the lead in The Adventures of Tintin, a film I would have loved to make had I been alive back in the 40s – a film that was released as an animated feature last year and is a great example for the art of film-making.

Another Season finally over…

Last night, I watched the finales of my on-and-off guilty pleasure program, Grey’s Anatomy, and its creator’s new brainchild, Scandal. I sat through ninety minutes of drama and mayhem until the inevitable cliffhanger concluded both shows for the season. I felt so dissatisfied and drained afterwards, the ups and downs in storytelling were just too much. The unnecessary drama, the pseudo realism and romanticized adultery – it all affected me in an exhausting way. After all, that’s not why I tune in to watch a show. What I’m looking for is entertainment and not an overexposure of depression.

In the 50s and 60s, Our Miss Brooks managed to mention her bad finances, work issues and relationship struggles without making the audience feel bad. She allowed us to laugh with her and didn’t put herself down, nor any of the other characters. On Perry Mason, it was also clear that nothing really bad ever happened to the main cast. No matter how bad a case, Perry, Della and Paul always came out on top and never turned against each other. On I Love Lucy, the main characters fought on occasion, but in the end it was always clear that Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel were friends no matter what. Donna Reed also smiled through every mishap and Alfred Hitchcock tested his audience’s nerves but never showed gritty details of his murder victims’ gruesome deaths.

And that’s what I miss these days – a mixture of suspense, humor and entertainment without the frustrations of a dysfunctional life. I don’t want to see my favorite characters die, nor do I want to hear their constant moaning. What I want is to be able to relax and revisit a storyline I can trust will keep me on my toes. I want dialog and uplifting action, and twists that don’t disgust or traumatize. I don’t want the endless cancer battles, broken heroes and close-up cruelties. I don’t want constant changes in structure and storytelling. So please, stop numbing me with your “anything goes” lack of imagination, dear writers, producers, network execs. I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.

The Ann Sothern Show

TV classics: The Ann Sothern Show

USA 1958-61, 3 seasons,  93 episodes, approximately 25 minutes each, CBS, black & white. Cast: Ann Sothern, Ann Tyrrell, Don Porter, Jesse White, Jack Mullaney, Ernest Truex, Reta Shaw

Plot summary: Katy O’Connor is the assistant manager of the Bartley House hotel in New York City where she has to deal with her friend/roommate/secretary Olive, the hotel staff, peculiar guests and her quirky boss(es).

Review: The Ann Sothern Show was a TV show that followed another TV series called Susie aka Private Secretary starring most of the same cast including its leading lady. Although the setting and plot had been changed, in a way Ann Sothern’s Katy O’Connor picked up where Susie MacNamara had left off due to contract issues which ended an otherwise successful show. Once again, Ann Sothern played a funny and capable character who was surrounded by mayhem and mishaps at the workplace.

Supported by her Private Secretary colleague Ann Tyrrell starring as Katy O’Connor’s best friend Olive, Miss Sothern performed her way through an entertaining set of ninety-three episodes with an otherwise changing cast. After battling with her first boss Jason Macauley (beautifully portrayed by Ernest Truex) for a good run of twenty-three shows, Ann Sothern was reunited with another co-star from her previous series, Don Porter, who was again cast as her love interest boss, complementing Miss Sothern’s comedic talent and style.

Apart from the show’s decent cast, The Ann Sothern Show welcomed a bunch of lovely guest stars, including Cesar Romero and I Love Lucy‘s own Lucille Ball. Produced by Desilu Productions, the show was predestined to feature the famed Lucy Ricardo as Katy O’Connor’s friend to answer Ann Sothern’s previous appearance on The Lucille Ball – Desi Arnaz Hour as Private Secretary‘s Susie MacNamara. Both cameos belonged to the first crossovers in TV history and are still great fun to watch.

Unfortunately, The Ann Sothern Show has not yet been released on DVD and reruns or online streamings are rare. I hope that the show will get a chance to shine again in the near future, because not only is it fondly remembered by Ann Sothern fans, but the show itself also has the potential to easily win over a whole new audience who appreciates genuine comedic talent.

Vintage Christmas

So this is it, only one day left till Christmas Eve.  Let’s doll up and spend the holidays with some of those joyful classics. Have yourself a charming vintage Christmas. And bless y’all!

Christmas songs:

Christmas TV episodes:

Christmas radio: