Saturday, November 29, 2008

Doubting Thomas

With the exception of Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, I haven’t logged in a lot of movie action lately (the pickings on TCM have either been slim or scheduled at a non-convenient time) so fortunately I try always to keep on hand some public domain TV-on-DVD’s to keep myself entertained. The nice things about these discs is that they run about two hours in general, and can be watched if I have only a limited amount of time (say, a half-hour)—much better than starting a movie and having to pause it and come back to it later.

Previously on the blog I reviewed some of the contents of a Mill Creek collection entitled Essential Family Television: 150 Episodes, which contained several episodes of the old Danny Thomas sitcom, Make Room for Daddy. Most of the PD episodes are culled from the 1953-56 seasons (though there’s an exception that I’ll get to here in a sec) when the series was on ABC-TV and co-starred actress Jean Hagen as Margaret Williams, Thomas’ long-suffering wife. I’ve expressed my opinion in the past that I prefer the Hagen shows only because even when she was given absolutely nothing to work with (an all-too frequent occurrence) she demonstrated a captivating charm that I just was never to find in Danny’s better-known TV wife, Marjorie Lord (1957-64). Fortunately, I’ve been able to score a handful of DVD collections containing these classic shows—I reviewed one volume of these back in June 2006 and I watched the second volume this past week. Here’s the content on Volume 2:

“The Visiting Englishman” (11/10/53) – Probably the earliest Daddy installment available on DVD (it was the seventh show of the first season). Danny invites an English friend, Montague Brooks (John Hoyt), to spend the night in the Williams’ household when the hotel loses said friend’s reservation. “Uncle Monty” soon stretches this out to a three-week stay, and begins to get on everyone’s nerves (something I noted, without a trace of irony, Hoyt would also do when he played the grandfather on Gimme a Break!). This one is pretty gooey with the sentiment (Danny’s agent—played here by character great Jesse White—reveals that Montague’s family was killed in the Blitz (Margaret, feeling awful about mistreating Monty: “Where does a girl go to her get her throat cut?” Danny: “When you find out, get a rate for two.”). But the interesting thing about this episode is that the opening titles are nothing more than a big tobacco leaf (a nod to Daddy’s sponsor, the American Tobacco Company [Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, etc.]) with Hagen is billed as “His Wife” and Sherry Jackson and Rusty Hamer “Their Children.”

“Family Troubles” (09/28/54) – Rusty asks Danny if he can start getting an allowance, and Danny (predictably) blows his stack. Margaret learns from Jesse the agent (he’s got his ear to the ground, doesn’t he?) that Danny is upset because his act didn’t go over too well with an audience the other night and now her husband has lost confidence in his abilities. So she and the kids conspire to help the family breadwinner get over the jitters. This one starts off kind of slow but gains ground toward the finish; Thomas’ performance in front of a group of kids (who paid a nickel to get in) is a lot of laughs. Interesting sidebar: in Daddy’s earliest seasons, the part of Louise the maid was played by actress Louise Beavers, who replaced an ailing Hattie McDaniel on the Beulah sitcom (and who herself was replaced by Amanda Randolph). When Beavers left Daddy…the producers went again to Randolph to replace her.

“Danny Goes on USO Tour” (04/20/56) – Danny’s all set to travel to Japan for the USO, but he desperately needs an accompanist. Margaret suggests that he ask songwriter Harry Ruby if he’s interested, but Danny is too embarrassed to ask him—the trouble is, Ruby very much wants to go…but because Danny didn’t ask him, he ends up in a feud with Danny.

This episode is, I think, the highlight of the DVD…not because it’s anything approaching knee-slappingly funny, but because of Ruby’s appearance (Ruby’s best-known song might be “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” from Animal Crackers [1930]) and funny turns from three other guest stars. Peter Leeds plays a jazz pianist auditioning to be Danny’s accompanist and most of their dialogue sounds like what may have ended up on the editing floor of a Stan Freberg recording (“It’s too piercing, man…too piercing.”) There’s a particularly funny moment when Thomas starts imitating Leeds’ bebop style and in comes daughter Terry, grooving to the beat (“Once I get started I just can’t stop, Lester!”). The next piannah player who auditions is Billy Gilbert, who uses his “Professor Theodore Von Schwarzenhoffen M.D., A.D, D.D.S, F.L.D, F.F.F und F” accent to hysterical effect. Finally, Mabel Albertson (of Bewitched’s Mother “I think I’m coming down with one of my sick headaches” Stephens fame) plays Mrs. Ruby for a grand slam of great character comedy. (I will warn you, though: the song that Thomas and Ruby perform at a nightclub is not entirely politically correct.)

“The Schoolteacher” (01/07/57) – Here’s a curio: an episode from the fourth season, post-Hagen and pre-Lord. (Hagen quickly grew tired of playing second banana to Thomas and the enmity was apparently mutual in Thomas’ case—so they killed the character off, which may have been a sitcom first.) Danny gets a bee in his bonnet about the way Rusty’s teacher (Monica Lewis) wants his son to sing in the Glee Club; he pays her a visit at school (Teacher: “Don’t mind these small little chairs, but, uh…we don’t have any boys as big as you are in the fifth grade.” Danny: “They did when I was in it.”). Ms. Lorraine Andrews takes a rather dim view of Danny’s career and in what’s pretty much a textbook example of the show’s modus operandi, he challenges her to do what he does at a nightclub venue (not knowing, of course, that she sang in nightclubs while putting herself through college) and ends up looking like a complete schmuck. Again, the opening credits provide the novelty: only Thomas, Jackson and Hamer are billed (Danny hadn’t apparently met Kathy O’Hara-Williams yet).

2 comments:

VP81955 said...

Harry Ruby did some work on radio in the '30s, so he was used to performing as well as writing. In fact, there's a Lee Wiley CD out there (its title escapes me) that features her singing as part of a comedy-and-music segment honoring Kalmar and Ruby.

Bobh said...

Those two "Make Room for Daddy" releases from Critics Choice are about all that's available for the Jean Hagen years, at least on a widescale commercial basis. Add season 5 (from Questar) and season 6 (from S'more Entertainment) and that's the sum total of commercial releases, excepting a few out-of-print dollar DVD releases of the Hagen episodes which can also be found on one of the Mill Creek box TV episode sets.