Sunday, July 19, 2015

Frontier Circus (1961)



During the 1960-61 television season, the western was still riding high, with 4 of the top 6 programs being of the western persuasion. One of the most popular was Wagon Train, produced by Revue Studios, finishing #2 for 1960-61 before ascending to the top spot for 1961-62. While the western was still immensely popular, the sheer number of westerns on the air had pretty much tapped the well dry in terms of new concepts. There were already historically based series such as Bat Masterson and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, wandering gunfighters such as Cheyenne and Bronco, town marshals on Gunsmoke and Lawman, cattle drivers on Rawhide, single parents on The Rifleman and Bonanza, a bounty hunter on Wanted:Dead or Alive, a gun for hire on Have Gun -- Will Travel, an aspiring lawyer on Sugarfoot, card-playing brothers on Maverick, a shotgun-toting detective on Shotgun Slade, and a reluctant deputy on The Deputy. What the western didn't have was animals. So established western novelist Samuel A. Peeples, who the season before  had created The Tall Man based on the legendary but historically questionable relationship between Sheriff Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, came up with the idea of Frontier Circus, which TV Guide in its Fall 1961 Preview issue sarcastically called "Wagon Train with animals."

And, yes, like Wagon Train, the program focuses on a caravan traveling across the west and encountering all sorts of adventures along the way. And many of the plots are driven by characters the circus regulars encounter along the way, rather than telling the story of the regular characters themselves, in this case ringmaster Colonel Casey Thompson, straw boss Ben Travis, and scout and advance man Tony Gentry, with animal handler Duffy added once the season started rolling. For example, we aren't told in the first 10 episodes that aired in 1961 where Thompson's "Colonel" title came from; we only know he has always had a dream of leading a circus across the country. And Ben Travis' backstory is a mystery. Tony Gentry, on the other hand, is a former Confederate soldier from Texas who could have gone astray after the war, as men like Jess Evans in "The Hunter and the Hunted" (November 2, 1961) have done, but was taken in by Thompson. But unlike Wagon Train, the series does not have an umbrella structure that defines each season or an overall premise to unify the disparate, individual episodes. In Wagon Train, each season constitutes one trip across the country from Missouri to California, bringing settlers west to populate an increasingly white western United States. Though there is not a rigid geographical structure for the sequence of episodes, they generally progress across plains, deserts, and mountains before reaching the west coast. Frontier Circus has no such progression. The one episode that alludes to these geographical reference points is "Winter Quarters" (November 23, 1961), which finds the Thompson & Travis Circus at the end of their performing season in Nevada. Usually they would pack up and head back to Missouri to hole up during the winter, repairing damaged equipment and developing new acts for the next season.  But Thompson persuades his partners that they should instead press on over the Sierra Mountains to California, which he paints as all sunshine and gold. However, the next week they are near Purgatory, Colorado ("Patriarch of Purgatory," November 30-1961), and the week after that they are near Hamilton, North Dakota ("The Shaggy Kings," December 7, 1961), so there is little rhyme or reason to their peregrinations. And as far as an overall purpose, Thompson essentially admits that his program is piggy-backing on the wagon trains depicted in "that other series" in "The Shaggy Kings" when he explains to Travis that they provide entertainment for all the struggling settlers who are striving to carve out a new nation in the west.

While other westerns of the era made at least a half-hearted attempt to depict other races and genders as worthy of respect, Frontier Circus sticks to a white patriarchal model as the ideal in the mythical west. The few Native Americans we see in the first 10 episodes are either bigamists or duplicitous. In "Dr. Sam" (October 26, 1961) Chief Red Cloud is immediately smitten by Dr. Samantha Applewhite when his braves commandeer her wagon and bring her and her nurse into his camp, offering to make her his ninth wife before she is rescued by the smooth-talking Thompson. And in "The Shaggy Kings" half-breed Michael Smith sets up Travis and Gentry for an ambush by leading them on a buffalo hunt and then persuading Comanche Chief Shining Knife to attack them for desecrating their sacred animal. Nor do Mexicans come in for much better treatment. In "Winter Quarters" Thompson generously takes in the horseless horse thief Nino Sanchez, who sells him a story about working with his brothers to cut timber for the mining companies nearby, then steals one of his horses and has his brothers redirect the caravan to a dead end where they lose the rest of their stock. Though he eventually regrets double-crossing Thompson who saves him from a lynch-minded rancher, he confesses that he and his brothers have decided to enter into the more profitable enterprise of cattle rustling.

White women, however, are given the most extended treatment in a more varied complex of issues but rarely are they shown as men's equals. In the aforementioned "Dr. Sam," Thompson feels that it isn't natural for a woman to be a doctor and he feels betrayed that Applewhite did not tell him she was female in their correspondence before showing up to work for him. His sexism is treated as being humorous and he is eventually outvoted by the other circus workers to allow Applewhite to stay, or more correctly to be brought back when she leaves in a huff, and after she successfully performs a brain operation on a fallen highwire performer, Thompson comes to accept her in her role. But we also hear her nurse say that she is being held to a higher standard than a man would--should she have failed to save the highwire performer, everyone would have wondered whether a man could have succeeded. And when she rides off with her nurse after her initial insulting exchange with Thompson, she is immediately captured by Indians and must be rescued by Thompson, showing that a woman is unable to fend for herself in the wild west. By episode's end she is offered a residency at a New York hospital that she decides to accept because she will be able to figuratively blaze trails for medicine-minded females who come after her, but it's clear that this path is a safer one than the one she leaves behind with the circus.

Thompson doesn't have a problem with his female sharp-shooter, an Annie Oakley-like performer named Bonnie Stevens, in "The Smallest Target" (October 12, 1961). She is even depicted as a better marksman than her estranged husband. But like the 1960 My Three Sons episode "Lady Engineer" and the 1960 episode "The Career Woman" from The Donna Reed Show, a successful career woman can never be fulfilled unless she has a home and a family. Stevens' backstory is that she abandoned her husband and newborn son to pursue a career full of adventure, but when she meets her now 10-year-old son during one of the circus' stops, her motherly instincts well up inside her and she can no longer remain separated from her boy. At the show's conclusion, she and her husband have reconciled and she decides to leave the circus and attend to the needs of her family, leaving her prize rifle with Thompson as a memento. The message is clear: a woman might be able to do all the things a man can do, but it won't make her happy unless she sticks to her traditional subservient role.

Thelma Ritter plays another career woman in "Journey From Hannibal" (November 9, 1961) but one forced into running her husband's livery stable after he dies. Despite her independent nature and her refusal to fall for Thompson's sales pitch to pay her later for boarding an elephant he bought 4 months ago, she finally has to go along with his proposal to take her with him back to Bismarck, where the circus will earn enough to settle his account with her, because her hometown of Hannibal, Missouri is drying up and she is headed for bankruptcy if she stays where she is. In other words, she is a damsel in distress and Thompson is her knight in shining armor. Once she has made the long journey with him to Bismarck and is repaid, she says she will probably settle down somewhere and open another livery stable, which is perfectly acceptable within the patronizing framework of Frontier Circus because she is past child-bearing age.

Another damsel in distress is dance hall singer Karina Andrews in the episode "Karina" (November 9, 1961), who has the temerity to shoot her abusive husband after he beats her for refusing to take the stage at his tawdry dance hall. Fearing that she will be hanged for murder, she flees the scene and winds up hiding in the circus prop tent, where she is discovered by Gentry, who immediately falls in love with her and puts her on a pedestal as an angel though he knows nothing about her. However, though Karina has the strength to shoot her own husband, she doesn't have enough to finish the job: Her husband is not dead, and eventually he and his brother catch up with the circus and attempt to spirit her back home. But Travis, Thompson, and Gentry, with an assist from elephant keeper Duffy, successfully rescue her, during which the husband is crushed between two wagons by the elephant. Though she is tempted to remain with the circus and its idyllic family atmosphere, she ultimately decides she must return to "reality" to clear her name, leaving Gentry and Travis with only their idealized memories of who she is.

Other damsels in need of rescue include blind horse trainer Maureen McBride in "Lippizan" (October 19, 1961) whose prize stallion is killed when Travis mounts it to chase a robber who then shoots the horse during his escape. Travis must then find and train a suitable replacement to prevent McBride from being left destitute and heart-broken. In "Depths of Fear" (October 5, 1961) Millie Carno must be rescued from her abusive lion-taming husband by his former boss. And in "Patriarch of Purgatory" (November 30, 1961) Susannah Hedges must be rescued from her slave-owning miner father, who makes the mistake of kidnapping Travis and Gentry but is no match for their daring escape plan. And yet none of these rescued women ever wind up staying with the circus. As Dr. Christopher Sharrett has observed in his treatise on The Rifleman, in the fantasy world of the western the female is generally made unattainable, at least by the main characters, to preserve the freedom of their boys club.

In any case, the knight-in-shining armor theme did not make Frontier Circus a winner. It lasted a mere 26 episodes, ending its brief run in September 1962. Scriptwriter Dorothy Fontana has suggested that one factor in the series' cancellation was the high production costs required by the use of trained animals. Perhaps more consequential is that despite the show's circus razzle dazzle, it had little new to offer to a genre already a bit overworked.

The theme music and individual scores for several episodes of Frontier Circus were composed by David Buttolph, who was profiled in the 1960 post on Maverick.

The complete series has been released on DVD by Timeless Media Group.

The Actors

Chill Wills

Hailing from small Seagoville in Dallas County, Texas, Chill Theodore Wills was given his unusual first name by his parents as an ironic twist on the fact that he was born on one of the hottest days of the year in 1903. Wills began his entertainment career as a singer, performing from age 12 in tent shows and vaudeville before forming the vocal group Chill Wills and His Avalon Boys in the 1930s. Spotted by an RKO talent scout during a Hollywood performance, they soon began appearing in low-budget westerns beginning with Bar 20 Rides Again in 1935, though Wills appeared as an uncredited campfire singer in W.C. Fields' classic comedy It's a Gift the year before. After 5 more Avalon Boys appearances, the group appeared in the Laurel & Hardy western farce Way Out West in 1937, in which Wills doubled as Stan Laurel's singing voice. After the success of this film, Wills left the vocal group and struck out on a solo career as an actor, landing background and supporting roles throughout the rest of the 1930s and 1940s in feature films such as Lawless Valley, Boom Town, Tarzan's New York Adventure, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Harvey Girls, and The Yearling. In 1950 he was cast as the uncredited speaking voice of Francis the Talking Mule, and appeared in 6 such features over the next 5 years. He had a memorable turn as Uncle Bawley in 1956's Giant, starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Montgomery Clift, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the character Beekeeper in John Wayne's 1960 epic The Alamo. However, his over-the-top campaigning for the award turned off many of his Hollywood colleagues, including Wayne. After he ran a series of ads that read, "Win, lose, or draw, you're all my cousins and I love you," Groucho Marx countered with an ad of his own that read, "Dear Mr. Chill Wills, I am delighted to be your cousin but I voted for Sal Mineo." Wills started doing guest appearances on television in 1958, with an episode each of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Wagon Train and amassed only a half-dozen such credits before being cast as circus co-owner Col. Casey Thompson on Frontier Circus in the fall of 1961.

After the series' brief run was over, he returned to feature films, appearing in McLintock!, The Wheeler Dealers, and The Cardinal all in 1963. Appearances in a pair of two-part episodes on Route 66 and Rawhide and a single episode of Burke's Law were his only credits in 1964, but the following year he played Jim Ed Love in the Glenn Ford & Henry Fonda feature The Rounders and was cast in the same role when the movie was adapted into a TV series in 1966. Like Frontier Circus, this series last only a single season, after which it was back to sporadic guest appearances and fewer film roles, such as in Fireball 500 and Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, which included the film debut of Bob Dylan. During this time Wills was also active politically for arch conservative candidates like Barry Goldwater in his 1964 run for U.S. President, and he served as M.C. during the California campaign appearances by segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace in 1968. Wills' last appearance on screen  was in the TV movie Stubby Pringle's Christmas in 1978. He died that same year from cancer at the age of 76 on December 15th.

 

John Derek

Derek Delevan Harris was born in Hollywood, the son of silent-era film director Lawson Harris and minor actress Dolores Johnson. As a youth, his good looks drew the attention of movie mogul David O. Selznick and name-giving agent Henry Willson, who dubbed him Dare Harris. After appearing in minor roles in two 1944 films, Since You Went Away and I'll Be Seeing You, he was drafted into the army and served in the Philippines at the end of the war. When he returned stateside, he sought out Humphrey Bogart, who gave him the name John Derek and had him cast as young criminal Nick Romano in Knock on Any Door, which appeared in 1949. The same year he won praise playing Broderick Crawford's step-son in the Oscar-winning All the King's Men, but his acting career thereafter failed to capitalize on these early successes. Instead of starring in Nicolas Ray's production of In a Lonely Place, which Bogart's production company had initially acquired specifically for Derek, the story was rewritten to star Bogart, and Derek wound up signing with Columbia and appearing in swash-buckling B movies like Rogues of Sherwood Forest, Mask of the Avenger, Prince of Pirates, and The Adventures of Hajji Baba. His studio wanted him cast in the lead for From Here to Eternity, but director Fred Zinnemann threatened to quit unless Montgomery Clift got the part. Though he had a few well-received roles in the latter 1950s, playing Joshua in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments and Taha in Otto Premminger's Exodus, most of his material was second rate.

During this period Derek would also begin a pattern for which he would be most remembered--marrying starlets and micro-managing their careers. He married French actress Patti Behrs in 1948 and divorced her 8 years later, after which he married the Swiss actress Ursula Andress, who at the time, according to Derek, spoke little English. He also later remarked that he didn't like her hair or eyebrows and that she needed to lose weight, and he prevailed upon her to change to meet his expectations, a controlling characteristic that would later have him called a Svengali. His casting as circus co-owner Ben Travis on Frontier Circus would be his last major role on film, other than co-starring with Andress in the 1966 World War II feature Once Before I Die, which would ironically be set in the Philippines and co-star his Frontier Circus friend Richard Jaeckel.
Once Frontier Circus was canceled, Derek instead turned to photography and directing, in addition to managing the careers of his next three wives. When Andress was called on to do a nude scene in the 1964 feature Nightmare in the Sun, Derek at first agreed but then changed his mind and refused to let her do it, though he would later photograph her nude for a Playboy magazine pictorial for which he was paid $15,000. He divorced Andress in 1965 after she had an affair with French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, though the two remained good friends thereafter. His next wife was actress Linda Evans, whom he married in 1968 (despite the fact that he initially didn't like the way she dressed) and directed in the little-seen Childish Things from 1969. In 1972 while directing a feature film that would eventually be released in 1981 as Fantasies, he fell in love with 16-year-old actress Mary Cathleen Collins, who was then billed as Bo Shane. When Bo's agent threatened to file a morals charge against Derek, he and Bo moved to Germany for two years. Once she turned 18, he divorced Evans and married Bo. Though Derek would later say in a People magazine interview that Evans was very understanding about the whole affair, she later said that she wanted to die and was angry, and yet, like Andress, she remained good friends with him and Andress and Bo through the rest of his life. Bo Derek's career didn't go anywhere for 6 years, until she was cast as the object of Dudley Moore's desire in Blake Edwards' 10. John Derek's career also went nowhere during this period, his only work being a 1979 pornographic feature he co-produced with Bo called Love You! Bo Derek's appearance in 10, which made her an overnight sensation, was only brought about because of Karen Callan, who had met the Dereks at a Hugh Hefner party and recommended Bo to Edwards when he told her he was having trouble finding the right actress for the role. According to Edwards, Bo told him at their first meeting that Callan was acting as her agent, but John Derek cut her out of any compensation from the movie and made unsubstantiated claims that Callan had campaigned for a role in the movie in place of Julie Andrews, Edwards' wife, which Edwards denies. Derek's clashes with directors and anyone else connected with his wife's career eventually led him to reject the entire film industry and vow that from then on, he and Bo would make their own films. The results were disastrous--Tarzan, the Ape Man, Bolero, and Ghosts Can't Do It, all directed by Derek, were widely ridiculed and torpedoed Bo's career, as Edwards had predicted in the February 1980 People profile of the Dereks. Nevertheless, Bo stood by her man until his death at age 71 from heart failure on December 22, 1998.

 

Richard Jaeckel

Born in Long Beach, New York, Richard Hanley Jaeckel's family moved to California when he was a teenager. After graduating from Hollywood High School, he went to work in the mail room at 20th Century Fox, where he was spotted in 1943 by a casting director who wanted him to play a young Marine in Guadalcanal Diary. At first Jaeckel said he wasn't interested and eventually agreed to play the role only on the condition that he could then return to work in the mail room. But he next appeared in the Navy flyer drama Wing and a Prayer before serving in the real Navy from 1944-48. After his service he returned to acting in a pair of John Wayne war features The Sands of Iwo Jima and Battleground. He would be gunned down by Gregory Peck in the opening scene of The Gunfighter and play a lusty young boarder after Terry Moore in Come Back, Little Sheba in 1952. Two years later he would make his television debut playing Billy the Kid in an episode of Stories of the Century, the first of many appearances on drama anthologies throughout the 1950s. Nor did his feature film work diminish throughout the decade, appearing in such top-flight films as Attack, 3:10 to Yuma, and The Naked and the Dead. Being cast as scout Tony Gentry on Frontier Circus in 1961 was the first of many recurring TV roles.

After the series' 26-episode run, he continued to find occasional TV guest spots on shows such as Wagon Train, Combat!, and The Virginian, but it was his feature film work that won him the most accolades, appearing in Town Without Pity, 4 for Texas, and most notably in The Dirty Dozen as tough Sgt. Bowman, followed by the similarly themed The Devil's Brigade the following year. He received his one and only Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor playing Paul Newman's brother in 1970's Sometimes a Great Notion. Newman picked him for the role after observing Jaeckel interacting with his family at Malibu Beach and felt he was just the right actor to play his on-screen brother. In 1972 he was cast as Lt. Pete McNeil in the detective series Banyon and after appearing in the 1973 TV movie Firehouse as Hank Meyers, he was kept on in the same role when the premise was moved to TV in 1974. Other than Clint Eastwood's The Drowning Pool in 1975, the quality of his feature films declined in the 1970s to such fare as Walking Tall II and Mako: The Jaws of Death, but his television work was steady, including another recurring role as Jack Klinger in Andy Griffith's 1979 series Salvage 1. He played Major Hawkins in the 1983 series At Ease and then found steady work for 3 years playing Lt. Martin Quirk on Spenser: For Hire. His last regular role and acting credits were playing rescue operation leader Captain Ben Edwards on Baywatch from 1989-94. In 1994 he was forced to file for bankruptcy and lost his home and most of his possessions. He was also diagnosed with melanoma and moved into the Motion Picture and Television Retirement Center in Woodland Hills, California, where he stayed until his death at age 70 on June 14, 1997.

 

J. Pat O'Malley

James Patrick Francis O'Malley was born in Burnley, Lancashire, England and was first known as a singer who recorded over 400 songs singing with Jack Hylton and his orchestra as well as a solo performer. Hylton and O'Malley came to the United States in 1935 to record with American musicians, and O'Malley wound up staying and shifting into acting and animation voicework. His first feature film appearance came in the 1940 Victor Mature romance Captain Caution, followed by Paris Calling in 1941, and Thumbs Up and Lassie Come Home, both in 1943. In 1949 he began working for Disney in animated roles requiring a British accent, beginning with voicing Cyril Proudbottom in the short The Wind in the Willows and the feature The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. He would go on to provide multiple voices for Disney animated features Alice in Wonderland, 101 Dalmations, Mary Poppins, and The Jungle Book as well as playing the character Perkins in the Disney serial and related feature film The Adventures of Spin and Marty. His television career began with an episode of the drama anthology Stage 13 in 1950, and he amassed a steady stream of credits throughout the 1950s in more drama anthologies and scripted series such as The Danny Thomas Show and Maverick. He appeared 7 times as Judge Caleb Marsh in the western series Black Saddle in 1959-60 and played the character Sgt.O'Reilly in the 7-part Disney serial The Swamp Fox in 1960-61 before being cast as animal handler Duffy on Frontier Circus in the fall of 1961.

 After the series ended his workload continued to be heavy on scores of TV series and occasional feature film roles. He played Dick Van Dyke's father Sam in two episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show and would later play Carol Brady's father on the first episode of The Brady Bunch. In 1963-64 he had a recurring role as Harry Burns on My Favorite Martian, followed by the role of Mr. Bundy on George Burns' Wendy and Me in 1964-65. Despite multiple appearances on everything from Gunsmoke to Batman to Ironside, he didn't find his next regular role until he was cast as Herbert Morrison on Touch of Grace in 1973, then appeared 9 times as Bert Beasley on Maude between 1975-77. As the 1970s turned over to the 1980s, he continued to find work on series such as The Dukes of Hazzard, Barney Miller, and Fantasy Island, with his last credits coming in a pair of Taxi episodes in 1982. He died from heart disease at the age of 80 on February 27, 1985.

Notable Guest Stars

Season 1, Episode 1, "Depths of Fear": Aldo Ray (shown on the left, starred in Pat and Mike, We're No Angels, The Naked and the Dead, God's Little Acre, and The Green Berets) plays alcoholic former big-cat tamer Toby Mills. James Gregory (see the biography section for the 1960 post on The Lawless Years) plays sadistic lion tamer Jacob Carno. Bethel Leslie (appeared in 15 episodes of The Richard Boone Show and played Claudia Conner on All My Children and Ethel Crawford on One Life to Live) plays his wife Millie. Vito Scotti (Jose on The Deputy, Capt. Gaspar Fomento on The Flying Nun, Gino on To Rome With Love, and Mr. Velasquez on Barefoot in the Park) plays circus clown Jaybo. Frank Ferguson (Gus Broeberg on My Friend Flicka, Eli Carson on Peyton Place, and Dr. Barton Stuart on Petticoat Junction)plays circus wagon driver Fred. Bern Hoffman (Sam the bartender on Bonanza) plays bully Bannister. Clegg Hoyt (Mac on Dr. Kildare) plays a mountain man.

Season 1, Episode 2, "The Smallest Target": Barbara Rush (starred in When Worlds Collide, It Came From Outer Space, Magnificent Obsession, and Robin and the 7 Hoods and played Lizzie Hogan on Saints and Sinners, Marsha Russell on Peyton Place, Eudora Weldon on Flamingo Road, and Ruth Camden on 7th Heaven) plays sharp-shooter Bonnie Stevens. Brian Keith (shown on the right, starred in The Parent Trap, The Pleasure Seekers, With Six You Get Eggroll, and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and played Matt Anders on The Crusader, Dave Blassingame on The Westerner, Uncle Bill Davis on Family Affair, Steven Halliday on The Zoo Gang, Lew Archer on Archer, Milton C. Hardcastle on Hardcastle and McCormick, Professor Roland G. Duncan on Pursuit of Happiness, B.L. McCutcheon on Heartland, and Walter Collins on Walter & Emily) plays her abandoned husband Dan Osborne. Roy Barcroft (Col. Logan on The Adventures of Spin and Marty and Roy on Gunsmoke) plays his ranch-hand Pete Andrews.

Season 1, Episode 3, "Lippizan": Vera Miles (shown on the left, starred in Wichita, The Searchers, The Wrong Man, The FBI Story, and Psycho) plays blind horse-trainer Maureen McBride. Gordon Jones (appeared in The Green Hornet, Flying Tigers, My Sister Eileen, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and McLintock! and played Mike Kelley on The Abbott and Costello Show, Pete Thompson on The Ray Milland Show, Hubie Dodd on So This Is Hollywood, and Butch Barton on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet) plays roustabout Rousty. H.M. Wynant (Frosty on Batman and Ed Chapman on Dallas) plays bandit Talby. Kay E. Kuter (Newt Kiley on Petticoat Junction and Green Acres) plays train agent Will Cutler. Otto Kruger (appeared in Treasure Island, Dracula's Daughter, Saboteur, Murder, My Sweet, and High Noon) plays former Austrian horse soldier Gen. Frederic Jellich. Joan Staley (Playboy Playmate who appeared in Cape Fear, Roustabout, Valley of the Dragons, Johnny Cool, and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and played Hannah on 77 Sunset Strip and Roberta Love on Broadside) plays circus girl Anna-Marie. Dick Wessel (see the biography section for the 1960 post on Riverboat) plays a blacksmith named Smith.

Season 1, Episode 4, "Dr. Sam": Irene Dunne (shown on the right, five-time Oscar nominee for starring in Cimarron, Theodora Goes Wild, The Awful Truth, Love Affair, and I Remember Mama) plays physician Dr. Samantha Applewhite. Ellen Corby (Henrietta Porter on Trackdown and Esther Walton on The Waltons) plays her nurse Abby. Norman Leavitt (Ralph on Trackdown) plays bear transporter Mr. Willoughby. Sue England (Mildred Price on Bracken's World) plays circus performer Mary. Jay Silverheels (appeared in Key Largo, The Pathfinder, Drums Across the River, The Black Dakotas, and Walk the Proud Land and played Tonto on The Lone Ranger and in 4 Lone Ranger feature films) plays Chief Red Cloud. Jon Locke (Officer Garvey on Highway Patrol and Sleestack Leader on Land of the Lost) plays trapeze artist Jerry.

Season 1, Episode 5, "The Hunter and the Hunted": Eddie Albert (shown on the left, starred in Roman Holiday, Oklahoma!, The Teahouse of the August Moon, The Sun Also Rises, The Longest Day, and The Longest Yard and played Larry Tucker on Leave It to Larry, Oliver Wendell Douglas on Green Acres and Petticoat Junction, and Frank MacBride on Switch) plays small-town physician Dr. Payton Jordan. Jocelyn Brando (Marlon Brando's older sister) plays his wife Phyllis. Rip Torn (starred in King of Kings, Sweet Bird of Youth, Tropic of Cancer, and The Cincinnati Kid and played Arthur on The Larry Sanders Show and Don Geiss on 30 Rock) plays former Confederate renegade Jess Evans. John Anderson (see the biography section for the 1960 post on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp) plays saloon owner Carl. Cloris Leachman (starred in The Last Picture Show, Charley and the Angel, Dillinger, and Young Frankenstein and played Ruth Martin on Lassie, Rhoda Kirsh on Dr. Kildare, and Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, and Phyllis) plays his wife Anna.

Season 1, Episode 6, "Karina": Elizabeth Montgomery (shown on the right, played Samantha Stephens on Bewitched) plays runaway dance-hall singer Karina Andrews. Tod Andrews (Maj. John Singleton Mosby on The Gray Ghost) plays her husband Jeff. Nora Marlowe (Martha Commager on Law of the Plainsman, Sara Andrews on The Governor and J.J., and Mrs. Flossie Brimmer on The Waltons) plays fortune teller Madame Sonya. Barbara Stuart (Bessie on The Great Gildersleeve, Alice on Pete and Gladys, Bunny on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Peggy Ferguson on The McLean Stevenson Show, Marianne Danzig on Our Family Honor, and Alice on Huff) plays knife-thrower's assistant Melda.

Season 1, Episode 7, "Journey From Hannibal": Thelma Ritter (starred in All About Eve, Pickup on South Street, Rear Window, Pillow Talk, The Misfits, Birdman of Alcatraz, and How the West Was Won) plays stable owner Bertha Beecher. Arte Johnson (a regular performer on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In who played Bascomb Bleacher, Jr. on Sally, Cpl. Lefkowitz on Don't Call Me Charlie, Clive Richlin on Glitter) plays train agent Charles Gippner. Clem Bevans (appeared in Sergeant York, Saboteur, The Yearling, Mourning Becomes Electra, and Harvey) plays train agent McPhee. James Flavin (Lt. Donovan on Man With a Camera and Robert Howard on The Roaring 20's) plays train conductor Boyle. Bill Zuckert (Arthur Bradwell on Mr. Novak and Chief Segal on Captain Nice) plays small-town Sheriff Barrett.

Season 1, Episode 8, "Winter Quarters": Robert J. Wilke (appeared in Best of the Badmen, High Noon, The Far Country, and Night Passage and played Capt. Mendoza on Zorro) plays disgruntled wagon driver Jack Gance. Alex Cord (Jack Kiley on W.E.B., Mike Holland on Cassie & Co., and Michael Coldsmith Briggs III on Airwolf) plays horse thief Nino Sanchez. Walter Sande (appeared in To Have and Have Not, A Place in the Sun, and Bad Day at Black Rock and played Capt. Horatio Bullwinkle on The Adventures of Tugboat Annie and Papa Holstrum on The Farmer's Daughter) plays roustabout Jake. Roy Barcroft (see "The Smallest Target" above) plays rancher Gore.  

Season 1, Episode 9, "Patriarch of Purgatory": Royal Dano (appeared in The Far Country, Moby Dick, and The Outlaw Josey Wales) plays mine owner Jethro Hedges. Robert Sampson (Sgt. Walsh on Steve Canyon, Father Mike Fitzgerald on Bridget Love Bernie, and Sheriff Turk Tobias on Falcon Crest) plays his son Mark.

Season 1, Episode 10, "The Shaggy Kings": Dan Duryea (shown on the left, starred in The Little Foxes, The Pride of the Yankees, Scarlet Street, and Winchester '73 and played China Smith on China Smith and The New Adventures of China Smith and Eddie Jacks on Peyton Place) plays mountain man Tobias Tiber. Dick York (Tom Colwell on Going My Way and Darrin Stephens on Bewitched) plays former gunfighter Jeb Randall. Michael Pate (starred in Face to Face, Julius Caesar, Hondo, and Tower of London and played Chief Vittoro on Hondo and Det. Sgt. Vic Maddern on Matlock) plays duplicitous Comanche Michael Smith. Frank DeKova (Chief Wild Eagle on F Troop and Louis Campagna on The Untouchables) plays sharp-shooter Karl Maynard. Jack Lambert (see the biography section for the 1960 post on Riverboat) plays gunman Hark Baker. Paul Newlan (Police Capt. Grey on M Squad and Lt. Gen. Pritchard on 12 O'Clock High) plays circus physician Doc Turner. Alan Carney (Mike Strager in a series of RKO comedies in the 1940s and appeared in The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and Herbie Rides Again) plays the circus cook. Dennis Cross (see the biography section for the 1960 post on The Blue Angels) plays Comanche Chief Shining Knife.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Jack Benny Program (1961)



In our post on the 1960 episodes of The Jack Benny Program, we discussed the ground-breaking formula the show created that has been adapted by many later comedians, including Garry Shandling, Jerry Seinfeld, and Larry David. Others have also credited Benny with essentially creating the modern sit-com format and influencing a host of other performers, from Johnny Carson to Kelsey Grammer. But the irony and genius of Benny's achievement is not only that he basically founded modern comedy but that he did it with a single comic trope that he repeated every week for over 30 years. And that trope--of Benny as the vain, self-absorbed miser who brings about his own misfortune--never grows stale, just like his claim that he was 39 years old. Each episode is merely an exercise in finding new ways to introduce the same old jokes into different situations. The audience knows the jokes are coming, and yet, like a dominant offensive line in football, there is no way to stop them from hitting paydirt.

We see the fictional Benny's inflated sense of self-worth on display in the very first 1961 episode, "Jack Casting for TV Special" (January 1, 1961). Jack has been allowed by the network to cast the actors for an upcoming special telling his life story. When it comes to casting the part of his boyhood girlfriend, Mildred Homquist, Jack selects an attractive, curvaceous, and flirtatious young actress to give the impression that he is such a good lover that he could win such a beauty. But this is undercut when he casts the part of his mother and the actress auditioning for the part is the matronly real Mildred Holmquist. After she leaves, Jack remarks, "She hasn't changed a bit." His cheapness is also shown when he tries to hire an experienced child actor to play him as a boy by bribing the boy with a large lollipop, only to learn that the child has an agent, who is also a child and who demands $2,000 for his client, threatening to walk out when Jack, as expected, refuses to pay so much. After seeing that he can't intimidate the young agent, Jack realizes that the uncompromising child agent should play him in the special rather than the child actor. This episode, like several aired in 1961, is actually a reworked version of an episode broadcast 7 years earlier, in this case "The Life of Jack Benny" from November 28, 1954. But because he doesn't rely solely on currently topical humor, Benny's jokes are timeless.

That's not to say that Benny doesn't also take a few jabs at current trends or other TV shows. In "Jack Goes on Trial for Murder" (November 5, 1961), Jack is served a summons after his neighbors file a complaint about his constantly crowing rooster. After unsuccessfully trying to hire a lawyer named Willoughby played by his nemesis Frank Nelson, who claims to have learned the practice of law from watching Perry Mason, Jack falls asleep and dreams he is being defended by Mason, played by Raymond Burr, from a charge of having murdered the rooster. Only the Mason in Jack's dream is completely incompetent and no match for the prosecutor, who, of course, turns out to be the nemesis Willoughby. When Jack asks Mason why he never loses on his own show but is getting butchered now, Mason replies, "Perhaps my writers are better than yours." Even if the viewer has never watched Perry Mason, the joke about the artificiality of television still works. Of course, it does help to have watched Perry Mason when Raymond Burr breaks down during his final summation to admit that he is the one who murdered the rooster.

Nor is Benny the only series regular whose character is depicted in unflattering terms. Announcer Don Wilson is the subject of continuous fat jokes. In "Don's Anniversary" (January 15, 1961) Benny celebrates Wilson's 27 years with his program by dressing him in a crown and robe and having him sit on a throne, only to have the seat of the throne collapse under Wilson's heft. And in "Jack Goes to the Cafeteria" (December 10, 1961) Benny comes out for the final monologue and reveals that all the food shown in the cafeteria sketch was real, listing off the vast amounts they used for each item. He then tells Wilson to be sure that all the leftover food is returned to the studio commissary so that he can get his deposit back, only to have Wilson say, "That food was supposed to go back?" and Benny reply, "I should have known" as Wilson pats his stomach.  It is only recently that people have begun to question whether making fun of weight problems might be cruel. In Benny's day the assumption was that weight was simply a reflection of willpower. Singer Dennis Day's simpleton character is also the butt of many jokes. In "Death Row Sketch" (February 5, 1961) Day plays Benny's son, to whom Benny must repeatedly explain what a cup, saucer, and knife are. In "Jack Is Followed Home" (December 3, 1961) Day stalks Benny to scare him in an act of revenge after Benny lets Bobby Rydell sing two songs on the program but doesn't allow Day to sing any. After the police catch Day and ask Benny if he wants to press charges, Benny declines but then takes Day across his knee and spanks him with a hairbrush, reinforcing the idea that Day is a child-like dimwit. There is never any indication that Day's character is somehow mentally deficient; he just doesn't seem to benefit from Benny's instruction. The only character who does not come off as flawed is Rochester, whom we described in our 1960 post as having been modified after Benny came under fire for racial stereotyping just after World War II. Rochester is depicted as his own man who knows his boundaries. In "Jack at the Supermarket" (January 22, 1961) Rochester outsmarts Benny in a game of gin rummy by cheating, forcing Benny to do all of his chores for the day in a maid's outfit, though Benny is then able to pull the same stunt on Don Wilson, who in turn pulls it on Dennis Day. On his day off, Rochester is not cowed into jumping up to answer the phone when Jack calls from the studio hoping to get a ride home, nor does he jump at Benny's subtle suggestion that he fix him something to eat, forcing Benny to cook his own omelet, though he needs Don Wilson to first crack the egg because he is too weak to do it himself. But Rochester shows his devotion to Jack in "New Year's Eve" (December 31, 1961) when he turns down an opportunity to go out on the town after Benny comes home early due to his girlfriend being unable to get off work. Rather than leaving Benny alone, Rochester decides to stay home with him and toast in the New Year with a bottle of champagne. In real life Benny had performed a similar, even larger friendly gesture during his touring days in refusing to stay in any hotel where Eddie Anderson was not welcome.

The one area where Benny was perhaps behind the times was his selection of musical guest stars. In 1961 we hear performances from The Mills Brothers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Jane Morgan, Bobby Rydell, and Mamie Van Doren. Rydell may have been a teen idol in 1961, but he performs two Al Jolson songs, and Van Doren may have been a hot property at the time as an actress and pin-up girl, but she is teamed with traditional Irish tenor Dennis Day in a duet of the old standard "You Make Me Feel So Young." Benny makes a nod to the younger demographic in his TV special casting episode by saying that he had recommended that he be played by Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, or Fabian, but that these three entertainers had insisted that he be played by elderly Jewish violinist Jascha Heiftez. Benny knew he was old school and didn't try to go out of his comfort zone to "remain relevant," as did many singers, like Jane Morgan to name but one, who recorded lounge versions of rock 'n' roll hits that sound cheesy today. Despite being a one-joke pony who recycled old scripts, Benny's program still remained in the top 10 for the 1960-61 season, and despite falling out of the top 30 for 1961-62, it rebounded into the top 20 the following season and remained there during its tenure on CBS. As the saying goes, "If it ain't broke..."

As mentioned in the 1960 post for this series, there is a disorganized collection of various episodes from the show's 15 years issued by low-budget outfits like Alpha Video, Passport Video, and Echo Bridge in addition to a 3-disc "Lost Episodes" set released by Shout! Factory. From calendar year 1961, there are a total of 16 episodes available--15 on youtube.com and 1 in the "Lost Episodes" set.

The Actors

For the biographies for Jack Benny, Eddie Anderson, Don Nelson, Dennis Day, and Frank Nelson, see the post for The Jack Benny Program 1960.

Notable Guest Stars

Season 11, Episode 11, "Jack Casting for TV Special": Mel Blanc (see the biography section for the 1960 post on The Flintstones) plays telegram delivery man Herman. Maudie Prickett (Cassie Murphy on Date With the Angels and Rosie on Hazel) plays Jack's secretary Miss Gordon. Dennis Holmes (Mike Williams on Laramie) plays child actor Jimmy Evans. Barry Gordon (shown on the left, played Dennis Whitehead on The New Dick Van Dyke Show, Charlie Harrison on Fish, Gary Rabinowitz on Archie Bunker's Place, Roger Hightower on A Family for Joe, and was the voice of Donatello on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) plays Jimmy's lawyer Harry Johnson.
Season 11, Episode 13, "Don's Anniversary": Howard McNear (shown on the right, played Floyd Lawson on The Andy Griffith Show and Jansen the Plumber on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show) plays radio network executive Mr. Willoughby. Nancy Kulp (Pamela Livingstone on The Bob Cummings Show, Jane Hathaway on The Beverly Hillbillies, Mrs. Gruber on The Brian Keith Show, and Mrs. Hopkins on Sanford and Son) plays an elocution teacher. Roy Rowan (announcer for I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, and Here's Lucy) plays himself. Bill Baldwin (was the announcer on The Bob Cummings Show, the narrator on Bat Masterson, and played a variety of announcers, newsmen, and emcees on a host of programs including Mister Ed, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Addams Family) plays himself. Leonid Kinskey (appeared in Duck Soup, Les Miserables (1935), Ball of Fire, Casablanca, and The Man With the Golden Arm and played Pierre Quincy on The People's Choice) plays ballet teacher Sergei Finskey.
Season 11, Episode 14, "Jack at the Supermarket": Flip Mark (Flip Rogers on Lassie, Brook Hooten on Guestward Ho!, and Larry Walker on Fair Exchange) plays Tommy, a boy seeking Jack's autograph. Herb Vigran (Judge Brooker on Gunsmoke) plays a butcher. 
Season 11, Episode 16, "Jack Goes to the Gym": Lisa Davis (Hula Hips Jenkins on The George Burns Show) plays the new studio receptionist. Alan Hale, Jr. (shown on the right, played Biff Baker on Biff Baker U.S.A., Casey Jones on Casey Jones, and The Skipper on Gilligan's Island) plays gym owner McGuire. Frank Gerstle (shown on the left, played Dirk Gird on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and voiced Raseem on The Banana Splits Adventure Hour) plays his assistant Larry Hawkins.  Norman Alden (Johnny Ringo on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Captain Horton on Rango, Grundy on Not for Hire, Tom Williams on My Three Sons, and Coach Leroy Fedders on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) plays a plumber. Richard Reeves (Murphy on Date With the Angels) plays a boxer.
Season 11, Episode 17, "Death Row Sketch": Mamie Van Doren (shown on the left, starred in Untamed Youth, High School Confidential!, The Beat Generation, Girls Town, and College Confidential) plays herself. Gerald Mohr (narrator on 19 episodes of The Lone Ranger, Christopher Storm on Foreign Intrigue, voice of Mr. Fantastic and Reed Richards on Fantastic 4) plays Harry the boarder. Alan Dexter (Frank Ferguson on Days of Our Lives) plays Jack's rehearsal manager. 
Season 11, Episode 19, "Jack Becomes a Surgeon": Mel Blanc (see "Jack Casting TV Special" above) plays Viennese Dr. Struneheimer. Claudie Barrett (starred in Robot Monster) plays a nurse. Tyler McVey (Gen. Maj. Norgath on Men Into Space) plays award presenter Mr. Harrison. 
Season 11, Episode 22, "Jack Goes to Las Vegas": The Mills Brothers (popular singing group) play themselves. Dabbs Greer (see the biography section for the 1960 post on Gunsmoke) plays Las Vegas Hotel head desk clerk. Olan Soule (Aristotle "Tut" Jones on Captain Midnight, Ray Pinker on Dragnet (1952-59), and Fred Springer on Arnie) plays a second desk clerk. Eddie Quillan (starred in The Grapes of Wrath, Mandarin Mystery, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Hi, Good Lookin'! and played Eddie Edson on Julia and Poco Loco on Hell Town) plays the bellboy. Richard Deacon (see the biography section for the 1961 post on The Dick Van Dyke Show) plays hotel General Manager Thomas. William Bakewell (starred in The Iron Mask, Playing Around, Guilty Hands, and The Fabulous Dorseys) plays hotel supervisor Hodges. 

Season 11, Episode 25, "Main Street Shelter": Grandon Rhodes (Mr. Vanderlip on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Dr. Stevens on Lassie, Dr. J.P. Martin on Bonanza, and the judge 16 times on Perry Mason) plays shelter donation coordinator Jim. Ralph Moody (shown on the right, see the biography section for the 1961 post on The Rifleman) plays shelter desk clerk Mr. Baker. Herb Vigran (see "Jack at the Supermarket" above) plays a drunk former lawyer. Gregory Irvin (Johnny Brady on Dennis the Menace) plays one of the Beverly Hills Beavers. Harry Tyler (Steve Rhodes on Black Saddle) plays a drunk at the shelter.
Season 12, Episode 3, "Jack Goes on Trial for Murder": Raymond Burr (shown on the right, appeared in M, A Place in the Sun, The Blue Gardenia, and Rear Window and played Perry Mason on Perry Mason and in 26 Perry Mason TV movies, Robert T. Ironside on Ironside, and R.B. Kingston on Kingston: Confidential) plays Perry Mason. Grandon Rhodes (see "Main Street Shelter" above) plays a process server.  Frank Wilcox (Henry Van Buren on Waterfront, Beecher Asbury on The Untouchables, Mr. Brewster on The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction, and the judge 8 times on Perry Mason) plays the court-room judge George.  George E. Stone (appeared in The Front Page, Little Caesar, Guys and Dolls, The Man With the Golden Arm, and Some Like It Hot, played The Runt in 10 Boston Blackie movies, and played the court clerk on Perry Mason) plays the court clerk.
Season 12, Episode 5, "Tennessee Ernie Ford Show": Tennessee Ernie Ford (shown on the right, popular singer and host of The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show) plays himself. Joe Besser (replaced Shemp Howard as the third of The Three Stooges and played Stinky Davis on The Abbott and Costello Show, Mr. Jillson on The Joey Bishop Show, and voiced Babu on Jeannie and Scare Bear on Yogi's Space Race) plays a broadcast engineer. Eddie Ryder (see the biography section for the 1961 post on Dr. Kildare) plays another broadcast engineer. Ross Elliott (Sheriff Abbott on The Virginian) plays Jack's director Fred.
Season 12, Episode 6, "Jack Plays Golf": Eric Monti (shown on the left, professional golfer and golf pro who gave lessons to Benny and other celebrities) plays himself. John Gallaudet (Chamberlain on Mayor of the Town, Judge Penner on Perry Mason, and Bob Anderson on My Three Sons) plays golfer George Simpson. Barry Kelley (starred in The Asphalt Jungle, The Manchurian Candidate, and The Love Bug and played Mr. Slocum on Pete and Gladys and Mr. Hergesheimer on Mister Ed) plays golfer Mr. Herbert. Hugh Sanders (starred in That's My Boy, The Pride of St. Louis, The Winning Team, and The Wild One) plays an unnamed golfer. Mel Blanc (see "Jack Casting TV Special" above) voices a talking squirrel. Bill McLean (Dave on The Jim Backus Show) plays Jack's caddie.
Season 12, Episode 7, "Jack Is Followed Home": Bobby Rydell (popular singer who starred in Bye Bye Birdie) plays himself. Robert Brubaker (Deputy Ed Blake on U.S. Marshal and Floyd on Gunsmoke) plays a police sergeant.
Season 12, Episode 8, "Jack Goes to the Cafeteria": Jane Morgan (shown on the right, popular singer) plays herself. Dave Willock (starred in Let's Face It, Pin Up Girl, and The Fabulous Dorseys and played Lt. Binning on Boots and Saddles, Harvey Clayton on Margie, and was the narrator on the animated Wacky Races) plays a bus passenger. Ross Elliott (see "Tennessee Ernie Ford Show´above) returns as Fred the director. Frank Gerstle (see "Jack Goes to the Gym" above) plays a cafeteria server. Shirley Mitchell (Yvonne Sharp on Sixpenny Corner, Kitty Devereaux on Bachelor Father, Janet Colton on Pete and Gladys, and Clara Appleby on The Red Skelton Hour) plays a cafeteria server. Robert Bice (Capt. Jim Johnson on The Untouchables) plays a cafeteria server. Victor Sen Yung (Jimmy Chan in 13 Charlie Chan movies, Cousin Charlie Fong on Bachelor Father, and Hop Sing on Bonanza) plays a cafeteria server serving Mexican food. Vito Scotti (Jose on The Deputy, Capt. Gaspar Fomento on The Flying Nun, Gino on To Rome With Love, and Mr. Velasquez on Barefoot in the Park) plays a cafeteria server serving Chinese food.
Season 12, Episode 9, "Jack Writes a Song": Dimitri Tiomkin (see the 1960 post on Rawhide for a biography) plays himself. Maudie Prickett (see "Jack Casting for TV Special" above) returns as Jack's secretary Miss Gordon. 
Season 12, Episode 10, "Christmas Party": Mel Blanc (see "Jack Casting TV Special" above) plays himself. Mary Lansing (Martha Clark on The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D.) plays herself.
Season 12, Episode 11, "New Year's Eve": Jill Jackson (Hollywood news reporter) plays herself. Charlie Bagby (Jack's pianist) plays himself. Frank Remley (Jack's guitarist) plays himself. Wayne Songer (Jack's clarinetist) plays himself. Sammy Weiss (Jack's drummer) plays himself. Shirley Mitchell (shown on the left, see "Jack Goes to the Cafeteria" above) plays Jack's girlfriend Gloria.