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 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 Eve Arden Show

TV classics: The Eve Arden Show

USA 1957-58, 1 season, 26 episodes, 30 minutes each, CBS. Created by Emily Kimbrough, from the novel It Gives Me Great Pleasure. Cast examples: Eve Arden,  Allyn Joslyn, Frances Bavier, Gail Stone, Karen Greene

Plot summary: Liza Hammond, a widowed writer, lives with her mother and set of thirteen-year-old twins in a nice apartment in New York where she is trying to keep her career going with a little help pf her literary agent George Howell.

The Eve Arden Show – pilot episode “It Gives Me Great Pleasure”

Review: Following her long-lasting success as Our Miss Brooks on radio, television and the silver screen, Eve Arden starred in her own show created by Emily Kimbrough. Loosely based on her book “It Gives Me Great Pleasure”, The Eve Arden Show circled around the life of fictional Liza Hammond, a widowed mother and writer whose career changes when her agency pressures her to increase her popularity by giving public lectures. Scared of public speaking at first, Liza soon grows into her new job which secures her a steady income. Living with her mother and her thirteen-year-old twin girls Mary and Jenny, Liza’s private life is frequently stirred up by her profession and the literary agent who comes along with it.

Allyn Joslyn played George Howell, the intermingling agent whose interests in Liza often bordered the personal. Always butting heads with Liza on a friendly level, he was a good match with Eve Arden’s natural comebacks and genuine comedic skills. Her timing worked especially well with co-star Frances Bavier, aka Aunt Bee from The Andy Griffith Show. Supported by an entertaining team of performing youngsters as the show’s teenage twins, Eve Arden and Frances Bavier created memorable grandmother-mother-daughter moments that still tickle my risible muscles today.

With its twenty-six episodes, The Eve Arden Show is a real gem to (re)discover for anyone who likes 1950s comedy and the hilarity of the program’s leading lady. It is unfortunate that not all original episodes are available for us to savor these days, but don’t let that stop you from giving it a chance. The cast is fantastic and the writing diverting. A truly funny show that will relax you with style and wit.

Selected episodes available on DVD and online.

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.

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:

Our Miss Brooks

TV classics: Our Miss Brooks

USA 1952-56, 4 seasons,  130 episodes, approximately 25 minutes each, CBS, black & white. Created by: Al Lewis. Cast: Eve Arden, Gale Gordon, Jane Morgan, Robert Rockwell, Richard Crenna, Gloria McMillan

Plot summary: Connie Brooks is an English teacher who fights a daily battle of sarcasm and wits with her students and colleagues, landlady and principle while all she’s really after is love.

Review: Originally introduced on radio in 1948, Our Miss Brooks was a big comedy success for Eve Arden and her talented cast of fellow actors. Moving on to television in 1952, the cast remained almost completely intact as they continued to entertain their audience with great approval. On TV (and radio respectively), Robert Rockwell succeeded Jeff Chandler as Connie Brooks’ love interest Philip Boynton. He was later replaced by Gene Barry as Gene Talbot when Miss Brooks moved from a public on to a private school in 1955 to change the setting and tone (Miss Brooks switched roles from pursuer to pursued). These alterations were not particularly well received by the audience and ultimately broke the show’s neck. Philip Boynton’s mid-season return did not prevent cancellation but the character appeared in the follow-up movie in which he then finally got married to the leading lady in 1956.

Our Miss Brooks was one of the first hit shows on television, popularly rerun for several years. The show was praised by its audience and critics alike and lived on in its original form on radio until 1957. Our Miss Brooks was a witty, smart and entertaining show which introduced a female lead who was capable in her job, warmhearted and feminine. She was groundbreaking as a working woman on television, a teacher who did address many realistic issues of her profession in a comedic way. She was also competent, funny and independent in her job, a direct contrast to a predominance of housewives and mothers. Our Miss Brooks did not glorify teaching or working girls, nor did it belittle traditional homemakers. The program offered an insight into a woman’s life outside of the home, a lady who handled her students and colleagues with sarcasm and wit.

Today, fifty-five years after going off the air, Our Miss Brooks is every bit as entertaining as it used to be although our realities and perception of working women have changed. Eve Arden’s performance is still gripping and hilarious, her repartee genuine and priceless, the supporting cast supportive in the best of sense, adding to the program’s top notch quality. So if you’ve been unfamiliar with Our Miss Brooks so far but like to to be entertained in a smart and amusing way, then give Connie Brooks a chance to win you over. She’s a classy lady whose comebacks may knock you off your feet while she’s trying to allure her future husband.

Our Miss Brooks sample episode and Our Miss Brooks feature film

More info: Our Miss Brooks radio program and Our Miss Brooks website.