Thursday, July 17, 2008

The perfect Storm

It was Gale Storm her ownself who nixed the idea of doing another television sitcom after My Little Margie, preferring instead to concentrate on her singing career and guest appearances on variety shows. But writer Lee Karson pitched to her a concept rife with possibilities: she would play the social director on a cruise ship, and since the ship itself was very much like “a big city” it would enable her to travel to different places so that there would be a constant change of scenery…ensuring that the storylines wouldn’t become stale.

Storm wasn’t interested. But Karson then threw in a kicker: every third episode would allow her to perform a musical number. Gale took the bait, insisting only that character actor Roy Roberts (a frequent guest performer on Margie) be given the male lead.

And thus, The Gale Storm Show: Oh! Susanna was born. (Yes, that is the official and lengthy title of the show. It was shortened to Oh! Susanna when it went into syndicated reruns.)

The Gale Storm Show premiered on CBS-TV September 29, 1956, and for four seasons (the last on ABC) Gale played Susanna Pomeroy, activities director of the S.S. Ocean Queen, a luxury liner that—because it was filmed at the long-since-lost-its-luster Hal Roach Studios—looked more like a slightly larger ferryboat with a few passengers along for the ride. Susanna’s job was basically to keep the Ocean Queen’s guests amused, but she often couldn’t resist temptation to meddle in their personal and romantic lives, thus creating a lot of the wacky situations on the series. Her best friend, roommate and often accomplice in her shenanigans was Elvira (some sources also say Esmerelda) “Nugey” Nugent, a fluttery beauty salon manicurist played by the wonderful character actress ZaSu Pitts. Between the two of them, they were able to create enough mayhem to keep ship’s captain Simon P. Huxley (the aforementioned Mr. Roberts) in a perpetual state of apoplexy.

Also on the series was an actor named James Fairfax, who played a steward named Cedric and was frequently on hand to aid and abet Susanna and Nugey in their monkeyshines. Most sources report that Fairfax left the series after the switch to ABC, but I’ve watched a few of those telecasts and he’s on them—so if he did “jump ship” he took his sweet time about it. About midway into the ABC run, Sid Melton (of Make Room for Daddy fame) makes a few appearances as a sailor named Hal, but for the most part it would be Storm, Pitts, Roberts and Fairfax apparently running the entire ship. Jimmy Lydon (Henry Aldrich in the Paramount movie series) shows up in a few segments as Roberts’ second-in-command (usually called “Evans,” but he answered to other names as well) and Joe Cranston was seen infrequently as another officer named Anderson.

I was fortunate to find a few reruns of Oh! Susanna for sale on DVD last year from a now-defunct online vendor; twenty discs containing eighty episodes (although there’s technically only seventy-nine, since this person mislabeled one of the shows and it’s a duplicate). I’ve had an opportunity to watch a few of these discs and for a series that supposedly promised a variety of storylines due to its luxury liner premise, The Gale Storm Show often seems stale and uninspired. Many of its plotlines revolve around the old “crooks on board ship” idea, a good example being “Stop, Thief” (06/01/57). An Italian movie actor (Mario Siletti) aboard the Ocean Queen is attempting to keep a low profile because he’s tired of being mobbed by his public. At the same time, an American jewel thief (Brad Dexter) is also trying not to be noticed, so he decides to pose as the same movie actor. Naturally, Susanna isn’t sufficiently bright enough to wonder why an Italian movie actor would speak without a trace of an accent (it also doesn’t help that he’s a handsome looking lug)—but it doesn’t really matter because she fingers the real actor as the thief, and has him locked up in the brig:

HUXLEY (holding telegram): This is from Scotland Yard…it’s a description of the two crooks…
SUSANNA: But we know their descriptions…
HUXLEY: That’s what you think…this description fits
Mr. Fontaine and his valet!
SUSANNA (fumbling for the right words): They do? W-Well, then, who is Louis Lasagna?
HUXLEY (getting angrier) He must be the real Mario Bonetti…the same Mario Bonetti that will sue this line for
one million dollars!
SUSANNA (falling weakly into chair): M-may…maybe he’ll settle for half
HUXLEY: Miss Pomeroy…how can you sit there so calmly?
SUSANNA: I haven’t got the strength to stand up

Oh! Susanna really isn’t a joke show per se—it’s more sit than com—but it did boast a fairly impressive writing staff, including veteran radio scribe Larry Rhine (Duffy’s Tavern) and Al Gordon and Hal Goodman, whose partnership produced many a memorable episode of The Jack Benny Show. John Fenton Murray also contributed quite a few scripts; Murray would later go on to write not only the screenplays for Jerry Lewis’ It’$ Only Money (1962) and Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964) but also managed to make a halfway decent movie in McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force (1965). One of Murray’s first-rate contributions to Susanna is an amusing little romp called “The Case of the Chinese Puzzle” (01/25/58), in which Susanna and Nugey try to protect a passenger (played by Keye Luke) by looking after a Chinese puzzle box. The twist is that the passenger is actually a smuggler, who’s hiding a ruby inside! (Pitts has a great one-liner in response to Storm’s insistence that Luke must do them no harm: “Yes…we’re Charlie Chan fans!”) In addition to the experienced writing staff, the directors on the show included vets like William A. Seiter, Norman Z. MacLeod…and a young John Rich.

Because the Susanna character always found herself surrounded by eligible young bachelors, those viewers who revel in seeing familiar faces before they hit the big time will get a kick out of this series; her suitors included Craig Stevens, John Russell, Mike Connors, Edd Byrnes, Gene Nelson and Lorne Greene. Celebrities like Pat Boone and Boris Karloff were also on hand; I have the Karloff appearance (“It’s Murder, My Dear”) on the set but I haven’t gotten around to seeing it yet. But who I have seen would fill up an autograph book full of character actors: J. Pat O’Malley, Eleanor Audley, Nancy Kulp, Casey Adams, Lumsden Hare, Jay Novello, Chuck Connors (as a witch doctor named “Irving”), Paul Picerni, Robert Warwick, Robert Rockwell, Percy Helton, Diane Brewster, Margaret Hamilton, June Vincent, Frank Albertson and Don Diamond. (Did I leave anybody out? Good.)

As previously mentioned, The Gale Storm Show retired to the old reruns home in 1960 (and probably roomed with My Little Margie, I’m guessing) but until I purchased these discs I had honestly never seen the series. It’s interesting: I think the show—even though it shares a lot of the same flaws—is much funnier than Margie and overall, the superior sitcom. Storm and Pitts make an engaging team (Pitts can take even the weakest material and make it shine) and Roberts manages to make his somewhat irascible character quite likeable. Yet Margie still prevails as the series Gale Storm’s fans remember her for; which might be due to Margie’s partly public domain status since Oh! Susanna is still under copyright and isn’t due for any sort of DVD release any time soon. (I should point out here that while normally I'm all for vintage TV releases, I just don't see The Gale Storm Show flying off the shelves.) The quality of the shows I purchased range from watchable to not-too-shabby; a few of the ABC shows contain original commercials for Listerine and Anahist (and feature the “steamer trunk” opening—the one where a net drops down containing four trunks with “The Gale Storm Show” written on them…then another trunk lands on top of the four with Storm dressed in a sailor suit and singing the sponsor’s jingle). Check it out if you get an opportunity.


Rick Brooks said...

I enjoyed this post quite a bit. I've never seen the series, but last year, I watched a bunch of "Margie" episodes when I switched cable providers and got a religious channel called FamilyNet.

I was fascinated by "Margie's" generic sitcom-ness, with every episode featuring some stock wacky situation or bit of business. Plus Storm was charming, I enjoyed seeing crusty old Clarence Kolb bust Vern's chops, and I seem to recall there being multiple episodes with a kangaroo.

I'll have to check out "The Gale Storm" show sometime. Meanwhile, I wish FamilyNet would freshen up its meager selection of P.D. sitcoms.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Rick, you may have found the answer to the Margie "public domain or not?" puzzle. WATC-TV gets some of their programming from FamilyNet, according to it's possible that's how "Mah-gie" pops in for a visit on the station.

Richard Sloan said...

Ivan: -- look at that episode of "Oh Suzanna!" that you have. It's a poor man's tour of the Hal ROach Studio! Gale and Zazu meet karloff at Lake Laurel & Hardy and she reads the plaque that the "This is Your Life" people had made, in which the studio pool was named in their honor bec. "they, more than anyone else, were in and out of these waters."
Did you get your tape of it from Sal Mauriello, as I did? It's a little smeary, and I would love to get a better copy. Can you make me a dub? I really want a better copy badly!

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...


I don't remember the name of the individual I bought the Gale Storm Show discs from (however, he's not "defunct"; his website is here) but I watched my copy earlier this evening and I appear to have the same problem as your copy. ("Smeary" is a bit charitable: my looks like it was videotaped through a screen door and then someone turned a fog machine on.)

If that's not the guy you purchased your copy from, then drop me a e-mail--I could always lend you mine so you can judge for yourself as to whether or not it's a decent dub.

Kliph Nesteroff said...

Dunno if these are from the same dub or not: