Thursday, August 7, 2008

New York, New York—it’s a wonderful Towne

Henry “Hal” Towne (Dennis O’Keefe) is a successful newspaper columnist whose daily musings (published as “All Around Towne”) are syndicated to a good many newspapers in N.Y. and beyond. A widower, his ten-year-old son Randy (Ricky Kelman) is looked after by Amelia Sargent (Hope Emerson), a crusty old gal whose demeanor and day-to-day running of the household has earned her the nickname “Sarge.” The other characters in this comedy of errors include Karen Hadley (Eloise Hardt), a P.R. agent who was Hal’s steady girlfriend and Eliot (Eddie Ryder—an actor who resembles the love child of William Schallert and Arnold Stang), his slightly snooty male secretary. This bland, inoffensive concoction is known as The Dennis O’Keefe Show, a short-lived CBS-TV sitcom that ran on the Tiffany network from 1959-60.

The Dennis O’Keefe Show obviously didn’t set out to conquer new comedy kingdoms but from the four episodes I watched (courtesy of Mill Creek’s Essential Family Television: 150 Episodes) it’s not all that bad (The Betty Hutton Show, which premiered in the same season and on the same network is much, much worse) and occasionally produces a giggle or two. (These same episodes, by the way, are available on a DVD released by Alpha Video Classics a few years back.) Created by John Fenton Murray (whom I talked about briefly in this post about The Gale Storm Show), the only real problem with the O’Keefe show is that the characters and situations rarely rise above run-of-the-mill. I have to admit though, O'Keefe sort of surprised me here; he’s not bad as a light comic actor. He made quite a few feature comedies back in the 1940s, including Up in Mabel’s Room (1944), Getting Gertie’s Garter (1945) and Brewster’s Millions (1945)—but for some odd reason I only remember his “tough guy” roles, like in T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948) and Woman on the Run (1950). (Maybe that's because he was a better actor in the last three.)

The most consistently amusing episode in the quartet of O’Keefe episodes is probably “June Thursday” (05/10/60), which opens with Hal and Karen doing it up on the town, enjoying a little dinner and dancing. Karen is begging Hal to name-drop actress Marsha Grant in his column (Grant also happens to be one of Karen’s clients) but he refuses—he’s not at all impressed with her alleged “talent.” Their conversation is so involving that they fail to notice when the music has stopped, and they sheepishly make their way back to their table (Hal says to the dinner crowd: “You’ll all stop smiling when you get your check…”):

KAREN: Don’t look now, but you’re not the only columnist in the room…
HAL (glancing over at a man flirting with a hatcheck girl): Oh…you mean Ed Hollister? He’s no columnist…he’s a vulture who somehow learned to type
KAREN: Oh, he’s coming over here, Hal—now no cracks…
HAL: Why should there be any cracks? After all, Ed and I are the best of enemies
HOLLISTER (joining the couple): Well…Beauty and the Beast
HAL: Hi, Ed—what’s old?
HOLLISTER: Well, I don’t know—I haven’t been reading your column lately… (Hal pantomimes splitting his sides with laughter) Karen—you’re looking lovelier than ever…
KAREN: Well, thank you! If my folks in Oklahoma could see me now…
HOLLISTER: By the way, at your request I’m giving Marsha Grant a sizeable mention in tomorrow’s column…
KAREN: Well, thank you, Ed! (to Hal) I appreciate it…
HOLLISTER: I must move along now…and I do hope you have money enough to pay the check, Karen…
HAL (after Hollister leaves): Oh, there must be a cure for him…

Hal and Karen are then approached by cigarette girl Gretchen Clayhipple (Patricia Blair) who, after a little prodding, Hal remembers for an impressive performance she gave in an off-Broadway play. Hal tries to get Karen to take on Gretchen as a client but she says no dice, so he gets the idea to talk up the actress in his column, and informs her of his plan. Typing out his column, Hal takes a dislike to her real name and, glancing at a calendar, decides to rename his protégé “June Thursday.” Soon, everybody is reading about the up-and-coming starlet in his column—including Gretchen, whom Hal has neglected to inform of the name change. Gretchen tells her pal the hatcheck girl (Mitzi McCall) how furious she is about Hal going back on his word, and decides to return home—seconds before Hal arrives to tell her the good news. (Asking as to Gretchen’s whereabouts, the hatcheck girl decks Hal and sends him skidding across the dance floor in a funny physical comedy bit.)

Now Hal is really up Creek la Merde. His rival Hollister (Jerome Cowan) is certain Hal’s made the whole "June Thursday" thing up and calls his apartment to see if he can meet this amazing new dramatic find—which means “Sarge” has to impersonate “June Thursday” over the telephone and behind a locked bedroom door…with predictable results. Since no one knows where Gretchen formerly hung her cigarette box, Hal, Karen and Eliot start a phone directory search to locate a “Clayhipple” and finally find a listing…in Mountain Springs, WV. I suppose I don’t have to tell you that there is no such township or hamlet in West Virginia—and that this twist in the plot leads to a lot of predictable “hillbilly” gags in which Hal and Eliot find themselves among your usual stereotypes of Appalachian residents. (As an individual born and bred in the Mountain State, I’ve heard just about every WV joke come down the spike and while I personally am not offended, you’d think someone would have come up with some new ones by now.) The Clayhipple family (William Fawcett, Patti Chapman, Bert Mustin) aren’t familiar with any kin named “Gretchen” so Hal and Eliot end up going back home to face the music at a press conference previously scheduled by Hal. Just when it seems as if Hal is going to lose face in front of the hated Hollister, Clayhipple patriarch Cyrus comes to the rescue: it seems that Hal was looking for his daughter Abigail (she changed her name to “Gretchen” when she came to New York).

I mentioned previously that creator Murray scripted many a Gale Storm outing, and this might explain why ZaSu Pitts shows up as a guest star in “Dimples” (04/12/60) which finds Hal’s son Randy infatuated with a little blonde girl (Merry Martin) who’s recently moved into their apartment building. Randy leaves a mash note for his potential conquest in her grandmother’s mailbox, and when it’s accidentally knocked loose Hal picks it up and replaces it just as Grandmama (ZaSu!) observes the action. So she thinks the note—addressed to “Dimples”—is from Hal, and the complications that ensue get wackier and wackier. The other two entries are “The Regency Club” (04/05/60) and “It’s Only Money” (no date): “Club” finds Hal dating a snooty socialite (Rebecca Wells; who’s only stringing him along to get even for some derogatory remark he wrote about her in his column) whose pretentious demeanor is starting to rub off on Hal, much to Randy and Sarge’s dismay. (This episode is only so-so but there is a funny bit involving a series of newspaper photographs taken of the socialite and our hero; Hal’s face is always covered up while the captions constantly identify the photos as “Paula Hamilton and Friend.”) “Money” entangles Hal with a pair of elderly counterfeiters (Cherry Grace, Forrest Taylor); the only real novelty of this one is that Murray later recycled the title for a Jerry Lewis film he scripted (changing the “s” in “It’s” to a dollar sign).

Hope Emerson, the veteran character actress who played “Sarge,” passed away on April 25, 1960, shortly after the last episode of The Dennis O’Keefe Show was filmed—and some have suggested that might have been the reason for the show’s cancellation. (I would say the competition on the other networks—NBC’s Laramie and ABC’s Sugarfoot/Bronco—probably put the kibosh on a second season for Den.) It’s sort of painful to watch Emerson in these episodes because you can tell she’s so ill she’s essentially a shadow of her former self…that wonderful performer who not only was seen as “Mother” on TV’s Peter Gunn but who played the strong lady lifting up Spencer Tracy for the benefit of courtroom onlookers in Adam’s Rib (1949) and the sadistically butch prison guard who terrorizes Eleanor Parker in the cult classic Caged (1950).

2 comments:

Andrew Leal said...

Great piece, Ivan. However, I am shocked, SHOCKED that you misspelled Burt Mustin's first name! The result of subconscious hostility lingering from the RTN Beaver-thon, perhaps!

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Yeah, that was an eensy screwup on my part. I have no one to blame but myself and the episode's closing credits...which, honest to my grandma, spell it B-E-R-T too!

I'm gonna be laughing at that LITB reference all day.