Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Danny boy

Many apologies for the lateness of today’s post, but it’s been sort of hectic the past couple of days since the celebrated co-stars of this blog—affectionately known as “the ‘rents”—have finally set up camp here in Athens in their newly sub-let palace at sister Kat’s domicile. Just to reassure you, no animals or humans were harmed during the move, though I did slightly wrench my back carrying a table I was using in the kitchen for dining into the computer/guest room.

As I continue browsing through the contents of Essential Family Television: 150 Episodes, I came across a pair of Make Room for Daddy episodes that I had not previously seen. If you’re familiar with the history of this situation comedy, you know that what eventually became to be known as the long-running The Danny Thomas Show originally debuted on ABC-TV on September 29, 1953, and ran on the “third network” for four seasons before switching to CBS (and also its name) in the fall of 1957, where it would be a Monday night staple for an additional seven years. (The Danny Thomas Show was still ranked among the Top Ten shows for that year, but the people involved with the series decided to call it quits; they would return for a short-lived “revival” series in 1970 entitled Make Room for Granddaddy. I always thought it neat that this series was telecast on ABC, as if it had gone back to its original home.) And if you’re fortunate enough to catch this show in syndication (I think the last time I remember it being shown was on AmericanLife TV many years back, as a weekday morning fixture with The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet), you may also know that the first three seasons of the series (when the wonderful Jean Hagen played Thomas’ first wife, Margaret) are not included in the syndication package and apparently have not been made available since 1964. (Why this is this case, I have no idea. I’ve heard many an anecdote regarding their disappearance—most of which have to do with Thomas’ extreme dislike of Hagen, and vice versa—but if that were really so it doesn’t make a lot of sense since Thomas [and Hagen, for that matter] passed from the scene many years ago…surely his family can’t carry a grudge that long.)

Anyway, the first episode I looked at on this disc was “Rusty Gets a Haircut” (02/22/55), which starts out with Danny Williams (Thomas) rehearsing a few numbers with his accompanist, Benny (Ben Lessy) when the proceedings are interrupted by wife Margaret, who’s concerned about their son Rusty (Rusty Hamer) being late in getting home from school. Eventually Rusty does return home to the bosom of his family—and appears to have gotten involved in a mild donnybrook along the way:

MARGARET: Oh, honey…look at that black eye…and his nose has been bleeding… (She wipes at Rusty’s nose with a handkerchief) Oh, come and sit down, sweetheart…what happened?
DANNY: What happened…he was in a fight, that’s what happened…
MARGARET: I know—Rusty, not again
DANNY: So what? It’s good for his mathematics—if he gets knocked out often enough, he can count to ten
MARGARET: That’s fine—your only son is turning into a common hoodlum and you make jokes…what kind of a father are you, anyway—aren’t you going to say something to him?
DANNY (after a pause, yelling): How many times have I told you…
MARGARET (interrupting him with a shove): Shut up!
DANNY: Make up your mind, will ya?
MARGARET: The poor child is in need of comfort and you yell—what kind of a father are you?
DANNY: What kind of a father do you want?
BENNY: Well, what kind of a father have you got?
DANNY & MARGARET (to Benny): Shut up!
RUSTY: Do you wanna hear what I have to say?
MARGARET: Well, of course we want to hear what you’ve got to say, sweetheart…now…now, tell us—how did this fight start?
RUSTY: Well, I was walking home from school…
MARGARET: Yeah…?
RUSTY: …when for no good reason, a boy in my class called me a girl
DANNY: Girl?
MARGARET: Well…did you tell him you were a boy?
RUSTY: No…but I socked him like one…
DANNY: Atta baby…atta baby!
BENNY: That’s the spirit of old Williams!
MARGARET: What?
DANNY (standing Rusty up on top of a cushion and raising his right arm): The winner and still champion…“Rocky” Williams!
MARGARET: Oh, cut it out! Cut it out now! That’s a typical male attitude…just solve everything with the fists… (to Rusty) Now sit down, sweetheart and tell me…look, honey—when this boy called you a girl, couldn’t you have just talked to him nicely?
RUSTY: Well, what would you do if someone called you a boy?
MARGARET (slightly puzzled): I’d have a long talk with my dressmaker

The provocation for the fight, it seems, rests with the fact that li’l Rusty has a beautiful head of curls, so father Danny decides that his son needs a “butch” haircut. Margaret is horrified by the proposition, and while Danny takes Rusty downstairs for a proper shearing, Margaret calls his barber and warns him that he even touches a hair on her son’s head he’ll never cut hair in this town again. She also makes Danny promise not to have Rusty’s hair cut by a barber—so Danny takes a whack at it himself, scaring the snot out of his son. Margaret’s reticence is revealed to be her concerns that Rusty is growing up too fast, which Danny dismisses as a lot of psychological mumbo-jumbo. The situation is resolved when “Uncle” Benny brings Rusty back with a proper butch—and of course, Danny begins to think that Margaret might have been right in the first place.

I followed “Haircut” with an equally funny outing, “Don’t Yell at Your Children” (03/20/56), in which Margaret and Danny are at their wits’ end dealing with the mischievous behavior of son Rusty and daughter Terry (Sherry Jackson):

MARGARET: Look, do you honestly think the proper way to bring up children is to roar at them like an angry lion?
DANNY: I don’t know…the way they roar back at me I’m like a cocker spaniel
MARGARET: It’s a wonder we haven’t been evicted…we’re certainly the loudest family in the whole building…
DANNY: Whaddya talkin’ about? Everybody yells, yells…all families yell…
MARGARET: Well, not like us
DANNY (raising his voice): Come on! Knock it off, you make it sound like we’re barbarians or something…
MARGARET: Ah ah ah…see what I mean?
DANNY: Okay…okay…so I raise my voice a little…
MARGARET: It’s not only you, honey…I do it, too…you start, I join, Terry screams, Rusty yells…if we had a parrot, it’d have an ulcer in a week
DANNY: What are you supposed to do when your kids get out of line? Pelt them with rose petals?
MARGARET: No! But you don’t have to clobber them with cobblestones
DANNY: What’ll I do when my son comes home with an unsatisfactory mark from school? What do I say—“Russell, I’m sorry your teacher doesn’t appreciate your sterling qualities?” And my daughter makes me fun of me like I’m an ignoramus or something…what am I supposed to say: “Oh, Terry dear…I’m so sorry about…my dangling participle…I’ll go to night school and study English…”
MARGARET: We don’t have to go that far…but we…we ought to learn to keep our voices down…
DANNY (quietly): Okay…so I’ll keep my voice down…
MARGARET: It isn’t only the yelling…it’s other things, too…I mean we ought to stop threatening them with punishments for every little thing that they do…
DANNY (quietly): Okay, I’ll stop threatening them…
MARGARET: Oh, when you say it like that I know you don’t mean it…
DANNY: I mean it, I mean it…whaddya want me to do, post a bond?
MARGARET: No, I don’t want you to post a bond…I just want you to promise me that…well…that from now on, you speak to the children in a gentle, considerate tone of voice… (Long pause) Honestly, sweetheart—just try it for a while…you’ll see, it’ll create a whole new atmosphere…it’ll be much better for the children…
DANNY: From now on, I’ll be…sweet as pumpkin pie…
MARGARET: Good!
DANNY: With whipped cream on top…
MARGARET: Wonderful!
DANNY: And a cherry on top of that…and a dill pickle, yet…
MARGARET: Now you’re making me sick
DANNY: What about you? You do pretty good in the screaming department yourself, you know…
MARGARET: Same thing goes for me…same promise…without the dill pickle on the top…

Margaret and Danny attempt to carry out this agreement, and son Rusty is the perfect guinea pig—he reluctantly tells his parents that he broke a bakery window, and I don’t know what’s funnier, Thomas’ attempts to keep from blowing his stack or Hamer’s wide-eyed disbelief that his father isn’t going to clobber him for the indiscretion. (A similar situation occurs when Terry confesses to her mother that she’s responsible for the disappearance of Margaret’s favorite perfume.) Finally, Rusty and Terry interpret their parents’ change-in-behavior as prima facia evidence that they don’t love them anymore and go on a misbehavior spree that only comes to a halt when Danny and Margaret fall back into their own yelling-and-screaming habits.

“Children” is a good example of what I liked about Thomas’ sitcom—his character of Danny Williams would certainly not be competing for the title of Beloved TV Dad anytime soon…which just made him a little more realistic in my eyes. He wasn’t a complete monster; he just needed to blow his stack from time to time in order to put things in perspective, usually arriving at the right way of doing things by episode’s end. Besides, with kids like Terry and Rusty—who may have been the brattiest kids in the history of family sitcoms—I’m not surprised he hit the ceiling on occasion. I don’t know if my preference for the early Hagen episodes is due to their rarity or my fondness for the actress in general, but I still think she complimented Thomas’ volatile personality better than replacement Marjorie Lord—Hagen’s Margaret challenged her husband more frequently than Lord’s Kathy (and I never found Kathy’s “getting her Irish up” all that believable). It's possible, too, that Hagen and Thomas' animosity towards one another gave her a leg up on this as well.

If you’re curious about what the show was like in its early years you usually have to depend on public domain collections (since no official release seems likely) like Mill Creek’s. There’s also an interesting website, TV4U.com, that has a few episodes of Daddy ready to view—one of these, the very funny “A Trip to Wisconsin” (04/26/55) is available on the Mill Creek set.

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