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

Personal Note On Spring Cleaning

It’s that time of year again: spring has finally arrived and I feel like cleaning out my cupboards, closet and shelves. I look at new (vintage) dresses and dust off my heels, I start looking for flowers and I’m back to cooking leaner meals.

When I grew up, I have to admit, I never grasped the meaning of spring cleaning. I knew my grandma did it with abandon and what was important to her has always mattered to me, but somehow the rejuvenating effect escaped me until a few years ago. I don’t know what started it, maybe I’ve just been getting older (and a little wiser I would hope), but now, spring cleaning starts my new year like I was always taught it would.

So along with scrubbing my floors and clearing out my basement, I also go through my boxes and files, my pictures and books, my movies and shows. And each year seems to awaken something new: a project, a friendship or a journey.

The funny thing about my spring cleaning is that it’s a process – though joyful and humbling at times, it also comes with a melancholy side. Last year at this time, I was mending my heart that had started to break the year before. This year, I feel like striking roots while looking for a change, a feeling that ties in with something I once read when I was still a kid, that most women have two hearts beating in their chest, that they have ambiguous feelings about marriage, career and motherhood.

I remember soaking up those words without understanding them, after all, I’d been taught that we could have it all. But when I was little, my mother was a housewife and my grandma retired, and I greatly cherished their presence. My mother returned to work as I got older, working part time without leaving the house before I’d been off to school. When I came home, she was always there with steaming food on the table and open ears to hear about my day. Now, I often remember how safe a feeling that was, how cushioned I felt, and I’m beginning to crave to create the same kind of haven for a family of my own. At the same time, however, I love to work and cherish having a career. Or to say it in my words: do I want to be a Barbie Hale or Della Street?

So far, I haven’t minded walking on the Della Street side of life (without having found a darling boss like Perry Mason or excelling at secretarial duties as naturally as his perfect girl Friday – fiction aside). But what if I’m craving to have more in life than that? How do I adopt that Babs Hale attitude I am so fond of, that “I chased him till he caught me” poise to use it on the Bill Williams of my heart who seems to be as shy as Our Miss Brooks‘ Mr Boynton? How do I get to be a Lucille Ball with a spoon of Lucy Ricardo, or a Donna Reed with a dash of Donna Stone? How do I learn to walk that tightrope Ms Hale and Hearty once described, that fine line between devoting yourself to having a family and being your own woman who leads a creative life?

You see, I’ve always taken great comfort and found inspiration in reading about female lives in times so different from ours today and yet so alike. My love for vintage was born this way, instilled by my grandma and our close-knit relationship.

My grandmother was born in 1916, a working mom of two girls who lost her son early on. She was married, of course, and yet juggled the household, her kids and the job she had been trained to do all on her own. By law, she wasn’t the head of her family, but she sure had to act as one. And when her health was troubling her, she didn’t have time to complain or rest, nor did she want to burden her family. What she really loved was cooking for us and our extended family, a whole apartment full of people at times. She never tired of running around to get more dishes, to serve more booze or cigarettes (yes, those were the days).

As a kid, I remember marveling at her in her apron dress, getting up early to follow a tight schedule every day. She always put her loved ones first and herself last without ever subordinating her personality. Like me, she loved Perry Mason and together we watched the TV movies with great pleasure (and a conjoint crush on Ray Burr), one of my favorite memories because Della Street has always reminded me so much of my grandma’s humble, demure attitude, her commitment and quiet joy.

I was truly blessed to have someone in my life who was always there for me, who understood me so deeply, who spoiled and loved me no matter what. I’ve been missing that a lot since she’s passed away -  the values and the trust she raised me with, her concept of family, love and community. I suppose that’s the question for me to answer this year, how to (re)create something that has been lost?

Now that’s my personal note on spring cleaning – apart from cupboards, sewing and dishes.

Password

TV classics: Password

USA 1961-67, 6 seasons,  1555 episodes, approximately 30 minutes each, CBS, black & white. Hosted by Allen Ludden, Celebrity guests: Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Raymond Burr, Polly Bergen, Arlene Francis, Gloria Stewart, James Stewart, Dick Van Dyke, Betty White et al.

Game summary: Two teams, consisting of a celebrity guest and a regular player, are trying to give their partners clues about a word they are supposed to guess.

Review: Password was a daily game show hosted by Allen Ludden, previously known for his work on G.E. College Bowl. Originally airing on CBS from 1961 to 67, the show returned to ABC in 1971 where it lasted another four seasons. Re-imagined over and over again, Password was presented in resembling formats on different channels, including a celebrity-only version where both teams played for the benefit of their chosen charities.

As a pivotal element of its concept, Password welcomed a lot of Hollywood’s big name stars, some of whom even appeared with their spouses or children. Always aiming at the lighthearted entertainment, Allen Ludden encouraged his contestants to bring their sense of humor to the show, sharing more than just one good laugh with the audience. Betty White was one of the early guest stars who made it a habit to reappear on the show on a regular basis. It may be safe to assume however that she did not only like to play the game since she got married to Password host Allen Ludden in 1963, a vow that lasted until his untimely death in 1981.

It’s charming trivia like that that adds to the fun of watching the original black and white Password episodes today – for Betty White enthusiasts, Allen Ludden fans and anyone who likes to play word games.

Selected clips and episodes available on DVD and on Youtube.

What’s My Line?

TV classics: What’s My Line?

USA 1950-67, 17 seasons,  876 episodes, 25 minutes each, CBS, black & white. Presented by John Charles Daly. Panelists: Arlene Francis, Dorothy Kilgallen, Bennett Cerf, Louis Untermeyer, Hal Block, Steve Allen, Fred Allen, Mystery celebrity guests: Julie Andrews, Eve Arden, Desi Arnaz, Fred Astaire, Lauren Bacall, Lucille Ball, Candice Bergen, Polly Bergen, Carol Burnett, James Cagney, Claudette Colbert, Sean Connery, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Doris Day, Kirk Douglas, Errol Flynn, Joan Fontaine, Ava Gardner, Judy Garland, James Garner, Bob Hope, Grace Kelley, Gene Kelly, Deborah Kerr, Hedy Lamarr, Angela Lansbury, Jack Lemmon, Sophia Loren, Myrna Loy, Allen Ludden, Paul Newman, Debbie Reynolds, Ginger Rogers, Mickey Rooney, Jane Russell, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra, Ann Sothern, Jimmy Stewart, Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Gene Tierney, Lana Turner, Robert Wagner, Betty White, Joanne Woodward, Jane Wyman, Robert Young et al.

Game summary: Four panelists are trying to guess the occupation of their guests and the identity of the mystery celebrity of the week.

Review: What’s My Line? was one of the longest running and most popular game shows on American TV. Launched as early as in 1950, the show was broadcast weekly on CBS for seventeen successful seasons until it was continued on a daily basis in syndication. Transferred to radio as well as to audiences worldwide, the format was a big success and didn’t go off the air until 1975. In its history, What’s My Line? featured a lot of famous mystery celebrity guests such as Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, Elizabeth Taylor or Robert Young, some of whom appeared more than once.

With its easy format, the game show was an entertaining half hour of guessing what the weekly guests were doing for a living, for the panelists as much as for the TV audience. Broadcast live in the beginning, What’s My Line? lived of the chemistry between its regular panelists and their host John Charles Daly. Arlene Francis, Dorothy Kilgallen and Bennett Cerf stayed with the show the longest while the fourth spot on the panel was usually given to a famous incoming guest. The thrill of the show lay in the variety of professions the panelists had to guess by asking funny as well as witty “yes-and-no only” questions. The mystery celebrity guest was always the cherry on top of each episode when the blindfolded panel of four queried its way to revealing who was sitting next to their host.

Like so many of the classic game shows, What’s My Line? is a lot of fun to watch these days. The panelists, guests and celebrities are entertaining and hilarious at times. The program is innocent for today’s standards, classy and polite. The game is harmless and relaxing, a perfect show to watch at the end of a hectic day.

Selected clips available on youtube (see links above).

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.

Autobiographies

I’m a big fan of biographies, especially autobiographies – the kind that explores the essence of a person’s life (personal as well as professional) with a deep sense of self-reflection, irony and/or playful nostalgia.

Today, I am going to recommend some of my personal favorites, in alphabetical order because I couldn’t possibly decide which one I like best for they are all so intricately different in content and style (not that that should be surprising, after all, each book describes very diverse and unique personalities and their genuine careers and lives).

  • Allyson, June – “June Allyson”, 1983
  • Andrews, Julie – “Home – A Memoir of my Early Years”, 2008
  • Bacall, Lauren – By Myself and Then Some”, 2005
  • Ball, Lucille – “Love, Lucy”, 1996
  • Burnett, Carol – “One More Time: A Memoir”, 2003
  • Burnett, Carol – “This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection”, 2010
  • Davis, Bette – “The Lonely Life: An Autobiography”, 1962
  • Davis, Bette – “This’n That”, 1987
  • Hepburn, Katherine – “The Making of the African Queen OR How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Houston and Almost Lost My Mind”, 1987
  • Hepburn, Katherine – “Me: Stories of My Life”, 1991
  • Loy, Myrna – “Being & Becoming”, 1988
  • MacLaine, Shirley – “Dance While You Can”, 1991
  • McClanahan, Rue – “My First Five Husbands… And the Ones That Got Away”, 2007
  • O’Hara, Maureen – “‘Tis Herself: An Autobiography”, 2005
  • Palmer, Lilli – “Change Lobsters and Dance”, 1974
  • Powers, Stefanie – “One From the Hart”, 2010
  • Redgrave, Vanessa – “An Autobiography”, 1991
  • Taylor, Elizabeth – “Elizabeth Taylor”, 1964
  • White, Betty – “In Person”, 1987
  • White, Betty – “Here We Go Again”, 1995

I do realize that I failed to list autobiographies by men, but most of my favorites never wrote about their lives: Raymond Burr, Bill Williams, Robert Young, Spencer Tracey, Larry Parks or Cary Grant. Thus my negligence and probable ignorance. I do have Robert J. Wagner’s book “Pieces of My Heart: A Life” from 2008 and Rock Hudson’s “His Story” from 2007 on my reading list though – if that placates those of you who wonder if I, as a woman, may be a little biased towards female life stories and voices.