Sunday, March 30, 2008

B&W TV: "Line" finds Steve Allen. Col. Sanders on "Secret."

Last night on "What's My Line?" Steve Allen joined the panel for the first time, filling in for vacationing, the poor, doomed Hal Block. It was the first episode of 1953, the year I was born. On TV.COM where they have a total recap of each episode in order, I learned:

(1) THE LOOKS OF THINGS: For this new show of the new year of 1953, and the first to boast the "classic" lineup of Dorothy Kilgallen, Bennett Cerf, Arlene Francis and Steve Allen, all four panelists have new nameplates on the panel desk, all set in Title Gothic Condensed No. 11.


I love trivia about font typefaces.

But, you can just imagine that the producers were watching Allen closely.

Meanwhile, on "I've Got A Secret," out walks Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Friend Chicken. A completely natural event given the fact that he's one of the most recognizable faces alive, right?

The panel had no idea who he was.

He was there because he had just sold his "chicken business." Gary Moore had him pull the check out of his pocket which they showed the audience. Everyone "oohed" and "aahed". Moore said, "How many of us have seen a two million dollar check?"

Two million dollars.

What the panel had to guess was how his "chicken business" was financed.

(The answer is that he financed it with his first Social Security check for $105 after having gone bankrupt. He used the money to make chicken, put it in his truck and drive around franchising restaurants and bus stations to use his recipe).

ADDENDUM: On the first blog entry I made several days ago regarding Black & White TV, someone named "Daniel" posted a very long and fascinating theory about why "I Love Lucy" was seen as so "realistic" for that era. I have reproduced it in its entirety because I think it's provocative and very well thought out. I don't know if I buy all of it completely, but it's too brilliantly stated to just let it pass as a forgotten comment.

One morning while surfing the channels and landing on "Lucy", as settled in to watch yet again another familiar episode, I suddenly began ooking beyond the comedy. I began to realize that the lives of the Ricardos and Mertz's weren't as simplistic as Lucy's legendary writers would have us believe they were.

For one thing, I began to wonder what prematurely frumpy Ethel would be like if she were ever to really vent her anger at losing out on nearly every joy in life instead of hiding her lifelong bitterness behind a cheery face and even cheerier words, most of the time. How come the Mertz's never had any children? And why did she consent to marry a man so much older than she was? And what's her life really like in that depressing apartment when she's alone with Fred Mertz, who's a grouchy old slob when not out in public? Scary, huh? Is it any wonder why she's always hanging around Lucy and Ricky Ricardo? Ethel over-eats because she's sexually frustrated! This is made clear by the way she constantly moons over Lucy and Ricky whenever they show affection for one another. However, Ethel would sooner jump off the Empire State Building before she'd let old man Fred come near her. How sad for a vital woman to be stuck with an impotent man twenty years older than she is.

And so I began to ponder over what the writers were thinking when they came up with such a radical twist on a whitebread sitcom for 1950s audiences.

The brilliance of this show is not only in its very funny dialogue and superb physical comedy, grand though they are, but in its reality. These characters shout, scream, fight, they get mad-- really in-your-face angry!! These four people cuss one another out as much as the 50s censors would allow. In one episode, "The Ricardos Break Their Lease," the entire episode revolved around the visciousness that can surface when best friends fight. Lucy & Ricky do everything they can to make the Mertz's life miserable. Of course, it's all played for laughs, but the reality of the situation is that there's nothing really funny about it if it were happening to someone in real life. Lucy and Ricky purposely throwing heavy objects on the floor, which is the Mertz's ceiling below, is not really funny at any time of day, especially in the middle of the night. The Mertz's show up at the Ricardo's door in their bedclothes with a ceiling light fixture that looks like a K-Mart version of a chandelier planted heavily over Ethel's head and shoulders, and her looking like she's ready to kill. Funny here, yes, but not really funny at all if you think about it.

These characters are passionate about their beliefs while not being the least bit pious, like Donna Reed or Andy Griffith could be. They also don't seem to attend Sunday church, which in itself is very radical for a 50s sitcom! Of all the countless things they discuss or even mention as couples or as individually married couples, church is never one of them. On every other fifties sitcom, having strong religious beliefs was the backbone for being a good, honest American, and was itself a constant plot point, especially for the closing morale talk, when things would quiet down and the child or spouse would "learn his/her lesson". Ricky being from Cuba is most likely a Roman Catholic, with a devoted mother who most likely has that Latin quality for being very religious, especially Catholic religious. Yet, none of the Cubans ever pictured in various episodes even mentions church! Ricky has no Catholic statues in the bedroom and they don't send their son to Sunday school just in case the boy's not being raised Catholic because Lucy is a Protestant, which is exactly the way Lucille Ball plays her. She and Ricky were not married in a church of any denomination. They were married by a justice of the peace! This was revealed in an episode when Lucy accidentally discovers that Ricky's last name on their marriage certificate is misspelled. She raises a fuss because she doesn't want to be married to Ricardo Bacardi, so, they go off to Connecticut where they were originally married, and we meet the man who married them. They still don't go seek out a church, as they had in real life when Desi's mother insisted they be remarried in the Catholic Church, but instead have the same justice marry them all over again!! Why not a simple church wedding? What's to stop them? Why do they not even discuss this option before leaving New York for Connecticut? How radical is that during a very conservative time in America when marriage was synonymous with church or synagogue? If you look beyond the comedy and see these people for what they truly are, they are all very odd-- and what's more-- non-conformist radical!

Perhaps this lack of piety is one of the reasons why the show remains so fresh. They did film a Christmas episode, which I've seen twice a few years back when CBS ran it during the Christmas season, colorized and in primetime, yet this episode was long held out of syndication because Desi Arnaz didn't want it showing up somewhere during July or some other inappropriate month, yet in that episode there is not one word about the Ricardos or the Mertzes attending church as part of the festivities. America in the 50s surely must have wondered why their supposedly fellow all-Americans were not planning to attend any services of any denomination when just about the entire country practically would be. Had this been The Donna Reed Show or Andy Griffith, you just know that before this episode was over, the entire clan would be getting into the car and off they would go to that little white clapboard building with the cross on the roof.

In this regard, I Love Lucy was very brave. Especially when one considers that during the early 50s Lucille Ball herself was named as a Communist, a fact long forgotten by most people today. It nearly destroyed her and I Love Lucy. Desi Arnaz and CBS immediately began heavy damage control. The charges were eventually dropped, as they should have been since she was not a Red, yet she and Desi went through weeks of hell before this finally occurred. One would think that the writers of the show would start focusing on the heretofore unknown religious side of Lucy Ricardo. After all, the 50s paranoia about communists was that they were heartless, cruel robots, and worse-- ungodly!

On the contrary-- the very radical Lucy scribes saw no reason to suck up to what they considered persons beneath contempt. Remember, Lucy's fellow sitcoms during this time were Father Knows Best, Make Room For Daddy, Leave It To Beaver, et al. Every one of them were wholesome family comedies. To accuse a lead performer working on any of these celebrated sitcoms of being a communist was tantamount to saying that that person was nothing short of a national menace and a security risk!

And what of Lucy Ricardo's missing father? In real life Lucille Ball lost her father to typhoid when she was only two years old. Is this why Lucy Ricardo doesn't have a dad, given the sitcom's penchant for using real characters and also on occasion actual situations as material for the show's plots?

A common practice by widows is to make references now and then to the deceased, yet on I Love Lucy Lucy Ricardo's mom Mrs. McGuilicuddy never does this! It's as if Lucy's father never existed! Neither does Ricky's mother ever speak of her husband. Could this be that because Desidero the First would soon enough abandon his wife and only child for another woman once he was safely restablished in Miami after the three of them had barely escaped war-torn Cuba, and by doing so would alienate his son to the point where young Desi couldn't bear to recognize him in later years?

Ethel Mertz also has a missing parent. Her mother. In the episode entitled "Ethel's Home Town," we meet her father, but there is no mother and no explaination as to why she is absent. However, in real life Vivian Roberta Jones was at constant odds with her mother, Venus Jones, over the fact that young Vivian had chosen show business as her life's career. Mrs Jones, a radical fundimentalist, was very much against her daughter's decision to enter a field she considered tantamount to godlessness and prostitution. This constant, relentless negativity would eventually send young, very successful Vivian to the psychiatrist's couch. For every alcolade Vivian received during her long, very successful career on Broadway, there was a lashing out by her mother all the way from Cherryvale, Kansas, to remind her that Vivian did not have her mother's blessing.

And so, all those years later, on seemingly innocuous I Love Lucy, Vivian's Ethel Mertz was mysteriously without a mother, and no one was about to explain why.

Again, radical writing for a 50s sitcom when you have these incomplete families and none of it is ever explained as to why.
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