Screen Couples

We all know them: the Stoneses, the Andersons or the Stephenses. For some, they may be a guilty pleasure, for others a mere necessity to get a story told. For me, they are the cherry on top of any tale: fictional couples and their personal stories. On the fringes of drama, comedy and mayhem, romantic innuendo has always been my favorite treat. From Date with the Angels and Family Ties to Murder She Wrote or Babylon 5, I have a weakness for double entendre paired with a healthy sense of humor, smarts and mutual respect.

Della and Perry1) Perry Mason and Della Street, for example, have been my favorite couple for more years than I care to admit. On paper, radio and screen, the lawyer and his secretary know how to put a smile on my face. Committed to their work as much as to each other, the true nature of their relationship has always remained a mystery. For some fans, they are the best of friends while others suspect some hanky-panky behind closed doors. For me, they have long been married, the epitomized working couple who combines independence with traditional values. And that’s the beauty of those characters and their story. They ignite your imagination and tease you to the point of sizzling frustration with a simple look, remark or smitten smile. It is a tradition Erle Stanley Gardner himself started in The Velvet Claws in 1933 and lasted until 1994 when the last Perry Mason TV movie aired on NBC. Perfected by its signature cast, Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, Perry and Della have since lived on in the hearts of many fans, the flame of their romance burning more and more brightly towards the series’ end.

Jennifer&Jonathan2) The second couple I have loved for as long as I can remember are Jennifer and Jonathan Hart. Sophisticated, rich and charming, the Harts had everything including a mutually executed interest in solving mysteries. Following in the footsteps of TV’s Mr. and Mrs. North, they dug up trouble where it’s usually hard to find but their love for each other made their cases stand out from others. Together, they were invincible and (much like Della and Perry) have stood the test of time. A mere decade after Hart to Hart was canceled on ABC, the couple returned to television in 1993, matured, refined, and every bit as committed to each other as they had always been. Today, the Harts are still a dream couple for their fans, a twosome who showed their audience the ingredients of true love and how it beautiful life can be even if you are denied to have your desired offspring.

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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.

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:

The 2000s

The 2000s

The new millennium started with a scare that influenced pop culture as much as everyday life. 9/11 in 2001 and the beginning of a lasting financial crisis in 2008 – the 21st century’s first decade did not live up the promise of a pampered life. But like in most crises, pop culture, fashion and the media took the turn towards entertainment. Reality shows seemed to increase by the minute, an interest in the clothes and trends of the 1980s was reborn with a vengeance, long retired musical acts from the 1990s celebrated their revivals and tabloids ran scandals and mayhem about an endlessly growing teenage starlet generation. Comebacks now referred to returning artists who had taken a break from their work for sometimes less than a year and everyone who knew how to submit an application to a song contest was labeled a star. New rules applied, enforced by social networks, youtube and the ever-growing internet media. Andy Warhol’s famous prediction that in the future everyone would claim fifteen minutes of fame seemed to turn into reality.

Apart from scripted reality, TV also offered a whole new set of new shows such as CSI (and its respective spin offs), Grey’s Anatomy, How I Met Your Mother, NCIS or Lie To Me. The credo was to present established genres from a new angle with characters who are skilled, a tad odd but also likeable. There’s no such thing as too screwed up as long as the characters excel at work and find a way to communicate with their peers. Slowly but thoroughly the nerd turned into a new hero and women were allowed to be just as silly, pitiful or sorry as men. The Gilmore Girls met the voice of an entire generation of young women and The O.C. brought soapy material back to prime time. Fantasy and science fiction was still on the rise, offering a variety of shows with strong female leads such as the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, Dark Angel or Pushing Daisies. Brothers & Sisters, Monk, Castle and The Good Wife used more traditional ways of presenting their genuine leads, nicely blending school-book storytelling with a fresh set of ideas. Veronica Mars, The Closer or Rizzoli & Isles offered a new insight into women of the new century, a lot less grim and sexed-up than some of their predecessors but every bit as empowered.

Another TV trend was the publication of shows on DVD – contemporary ones, short-lived hits or vintage shows such as Perry Mason, The Donna Reed Show, Bewitched or I Love Lucy. As an addition to on-going re-runs on TV or Hulu, those retro shows attracted an audience already familiar with their favorite childhood stars, ranging from baby boomers to a generation that had fallen in love with the classics in the 1980s and 90s. The shows offered an alternative to the different values, aesthetics and storytelling of contemporary shows that were sometimes perceived as unsuitable for families or plain unoriginal.

At the movies, Pixar was still one the rise slowly pushing old-school animation out of the market with films such as Monster Inc. or Finding Nemo. Serial adaptations were popular such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Twilight or The Chronicles of Narnia, showing a preference for a blend of fantasy and improved special effects. Action movies, buddy films, comic book adaptations and science fiction sagas also met the audience’s increasing interest in fairytale worlds, video game aesthetics and escapism. The 2000s also brought on a growing interest in Meryl Streep’s diversity in films such as Mamma Mia!, Doubt or Julie & Julia. There was also room for Nancy Meyer’s love stories that featured a mature cast of stellar actors, such as It’s Complicated or Something’s Gotta Give, as well as for numerous other romantic comedies. All in all, the 2000s featured a diverse list of film titles, including The Inconvenient Truth, Lions for Lambs or The Visitor. Like in previous decades, popular successes were not the only contribution and it will be interesting to see where this new decade of the 2010s is headed.

The 70s

On the next couple of Fridays I will bring you information about and recommendations from beyond my favorite decades, starting today.

The 1970s

Fashion in the 70s was colorful with patterns that could make you dizzy. Skirts were super long or super short. You had knee-high boots and ethno-chic tunics. Trousers were flared and paired with platform shoes. Popular colors were hippie rich and often psychedelic. A deep rich brown combined with a bright orange and sunny yellow, or a combination of colors that weren’t necessarily easy on the eyes. 1970s fashion was about fun, second wave feminism and comfort. The music world presented ABBA from Sweden and Saturday Night Fever on dance floors worldwide. Glam rock and punk entered the scene, while microwave ovens became more popular in US homes.

On TV, Mary Tyler Moore had her successful debut, as well as The Muppets. Following affirmative action, Woodstock and the relaunch of an arduous gender debate in the 60s, 1970s television was the mirror of a society still heavily entangled in the Vietnam war. M*A*S*H was a direct answer to the pains and fears of an entire generation, inspired by its preceding feature film and novel. Other examples for successful shows from that era are Happy Days, my decade favorite Hart to HartThe Love Boat, or The Waltons with their rather classic entertainment qualities. New family realities and changing structures were picked up on The Brady Bunch, The Odd Couple, The Partridge Family or Three’s Company, the ongoing debate on gender equality on a variety of shows that circled around female leads. Not that TV hadn’t presented women as central heroes before, but the tone had changed and the atmosphere. Charlie’s Angels, Maude, Police Woman or Wonder Woman didn’t have much on Lucy Ricardo, Donna Stone, Samantha Stephens or Susie McNamara. It was a different fabric these “new women” were made of, independent and hard-boiled yet often sexed up. They were supposed to find their way in a man’s world, no matter what, and their wardrobe and wisecracking attitude helped them accomplish that goal.

On the silver screen, gritty, sexed-up, shocking or taboo-breaking was in vogue: The Godfather, The GraduateKramer vs. Kramer, Norma Rae, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Taxi Driver were big hits, as well as the emerging genre of disaster movies kicked off by the adaptation of Alex Haley’s Airport. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of either one of these films although I have always greatly appreciated each film’s stellar cast. Cabaret or Love Story  are more my cup of tea, along with the surfer movie Big Wednesday for three simple reasons: California, William Katt and his mother Barbara Hale. I guess you can see my priorities.

The Donna Reed Show

TV classics: The Donna Reed Show

USA 1958-66, 8 seasons,  275 episodes, 20-25 minutes each, ABC, black & white. Produced by: Tony Owen, Bill Robert, Developed by: Donna Reed and Tony Owen. Regular cast: Donna Reed, Carl Betz, Paul Petersen, Shelley Fabares, Patty Petersen

Plot summary: Housewife and mother Donna Stone masters her everyday life with utmost love and a charming sense of humor as she takes care of her teenage-troubled children and pediatrician husband Alex.

Review: The Donna Reed Show is often referred to as a typical example of a 1950s family show. Built around housewife and mother Donna however, this show is hardly a typical example at all. Although many shows featured a loving stay-at-home mom at the time, this show finally focused on a female lead and her everyday challenges. A sitcom through and through, The Donna Reed Show tackles Donna’s household issues, marriage troubles and teenage quarrels with a kind twinkle in the eye. Although graver topics are being addressed in individual episodes, the show was basically designed to entertain and paint a wholesome picture of a warmhearted Stone family.

Developed by the show’s star Donna Reed and her producer husband Tony Owen, the show offers fully fleshed characters and a talented cast of actors. Donna Reed, best known for her endearing portrayal of Mary Hatch in It’s a Wonderful Life, is supported by Carl Betz as father-of-the-year Alex Stone (no pun intended) and their two perky children Mary and Jeff played by Shelley Fabares and Paul Petersen. Although, by today’s cynical standards, it may sound as if this family is too good to be true and thus unbearable to watch, The Donna Reed Show is a darling show that deserves a chance. It’s not by accident that she show lasted eight full seasons and was successfully rerun in the 1980s and early 1990s.

What makes this show stand out is not the often scrutinized image of the perfect housewife, beautifully played by Donna Reed. In actuality it’s the lighthearted, easygoing sense of humor that carries the show, as well as the then uncommon respect it shows for Donna Stone’s daily routine and all the obstacles that begged to confuse it. Uncommon then, to show a housewife and mother as more than just an adored yet needed piece of jewelry, and uncommon now, in times when a lot of TV housewives are either depicted as shrews, addicts or adulteresses.

The Donna Reed Show did mirror life in the 1950s as much as current shows do today. In essence, it is the ideal image of an era so different from ours now, a lovely show to watch with your kids (or alone) to remind ourselves how life could be without the snarky and that perpetual promise for women that we supposedly can have it all.

Available on DVD.

Classy TV Ladies

So this is the odd Friday post after I was indisposed last week. Sorry about that! But this week I’m back and on a roll about something a dear friend of mine stirred up over breakfast only yesterday. Whatever happened to the warmhearted, caring and classy TV lady?! Mind you, I may jump decades a little in this entry, but I can’t help it. Where did my darling women go?! You know the bunch: Donna Stone, Samantha Stephens, Jennifer Hart, Elyse Keaton, Amanda King, Claire Huxtable,  JB Fletcher or Maggie Seaver?! All essentially different characters but obviously of undesired making these days. Or are they?!

When the topic arose yesterday morning, I found my friend raving about these shows: The Cosby Show, Family Ties and Growing Pains. All shows with strong working mother types. Granted, all comedy shows and not all too popular in style anymore – at least not production-wise, DVD sales however tell another (more successful) story. So the 1980s may be in vogue and families could be buying these childhood memories for their own kids these days, but isn’t it strange how appealing those stories and characters still are, especially to young women who seem to grow tired of being bombarded with a sexed-up stereotype of power Barbie?!

You see, I greatly enjoy Castle and The Good Wife, both shows with strong, likeable female leads. Brothers & Sisters also featured a motherly type of rare making in today’s shows and a bunch of crazy yet charming (adult) kids.  But these shows seem to be on the endangered species list. How many other popular programs can you name that make you feel like coming home to a family of respectable adults who really nurture their kids?! Donna Stone (The Donna Reed Show) and Samantha Stephens (Bewitched) really seem to be from another lifetime when you watch them doting on their families in the 1950s and 60s. But weren’t Maggie Seaver, Claire Huxtable and Elyse Keaton just the same only two, three decades later?! All working moms but always capable and affectionate towards their families despite their equally cherished careers?! And what about those female characters without children, like JB Fletcher, Jennifer Hart or my all-time favorite Della Street?! How come they were so much less neurotic and snotty and able to smile even if they were up to their necks in hazard?!

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me but although I greatly enjoy some of what TV has to offer these days, including The Closer with its quirky female characters or Rizzoli & Isles with that team of unalike female leads, I cannot help but wonder why there are so few shows out there who pick up on that yearning for a more mature kind of female characters who are in touch with both, their professional qualities and their warmth. The West Wing did good in its own unique way without the sexual (yet highly entertaining) in-your-face attitude of Sex and the City, granted. But with all due respect for feminism and women’s lib, was Della Street that much less liberated by choosing to be a working girl and dressing adequately for success? Or did Claire Huxtable ever make a secret of loving her family but, at the same time, struggling to combine it with her dedication to her profession?! Hardly so, yet they both never came across as dodgy, moody or condescending. They were charming instead and had a respectful sense of humor about their situation, the men in their lives and the obstacles that came with both, something I greatly value when I now watch DVD reruns of the shows they were such pivotal parts of.

Call me a hopeless romantic or an idealist but I like to see the best of both worlds depicted on screen: female characters who get to prove their skills with implicitness in both their workplace and at home (husband and children included or not). I loved growing up with that image and it has always instilled a sense of tranquility in me that there is more to life than only the choice between Cagney or Lacey, Mary Tyler Moore or Sue Ann Nivens, mother or career woman. And I hope there will be a larger variety of shows which introduce independent yet sane and benign female characters again who make me feel like coming home.