Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Let us now praise the carpenter


You may remember reading in an earlier post that one of the gifts I received for Christmas was the DVD collection I’m Dickens…He’s Fenster: Volume 1, a 3-disc set containing the first sixteen episodes of the ABC situation comedy that lasted a solitary season from 1962-63.  Created and produced by Honeymooners/Phil Silvers Show scribe Leonard Stern, who would later have a hand in such later shows as Get Smart, He & She and McMillan and Wife, the series starred John Astin (Dickens) and Marty Ingels (Fenster) as a pair of enthusiastic (if sometimes inept) handymen who were bosom buddies despite their disparate lifestyles: Arch Fenster was a carefree and somewhat irresponsible bachelor, with pal Harry Dickens the more stable (if a bit insecure) married man, lawfully wedded to supportive spouse Kate (Emmaline Henry).

I’ve talked about the show on the blog before, how I was looking forward to the release after having previously enjoyed sampling it through my nefarious bootleg connections.  The Volume 1 set was mailed out to interested parties in the early part of December (provided you purchased the collection directly from the website) in advance of its official April 10th date, and those who jumped on the special deal also got a bonus in an autographed postcard from one of five performers who had appeared on the show (I scored one with Lee Meriwether) in addition to getting a credit when Volume 2 (the final sixteen episodes) is released as a “co-architect.”  I’m sure I don’t have to remind you of my irritation with split-season DVD collections but I find it hard to be angry at this one (“Stay not mad!” as Stacia would say) because of the bodacious extras…including commentaries from creator Stern, cast members Astin, Ingels and Dave “Agent 13” Ketchum and guest stars Meriwether and Yvonne “Batgirl” Craig (Chris Korman, son of Harvey, also offers some insights on an episode his pop had a part in, “The Acting Game”).

Of the episodes of Dickens…Fenster that I’ve watched so far, my favorite is probably “The Joke”…and I consider it my favorite possibly because it would be the episode that I’d show to someone who’d never seen the series.  I talked about the episode in this January 2008 post but a few of the other outings on this collection that I deeply enjoy are “The Double Life of Mel Warshaw” (Harry, Arch and their pals attempt to fix up a dilapidated cabin), “Harry, the Father Image” (which includes a falling-down funny scene that has Astin having to cope with a sudden influx of Ingels’ girlfriends as he tries to keep them from meeting Marty’s fiancée, played by Ellen [McRae] Burstyn) and “Here’s to the Three of Us” (Astin executes similar laughs as he rushes around his house hiding party food, keeping Ingels from learning about a shindig to which he’s not been invited).  “How Not to Succeed in Business” is also a pip; the highlight is a riotous scene where Harry and Arch, striking out on their own and inviting potential clients to dinner, get stuck with a check they cannot pay.

Of special interest to OTR fans is an episode “Party, Party, Who’s Got the Party?” which was penned by Ray Singer and Dick Chevillat, the two men who wrote the wonderful Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.  The episode begins with some hilarious physical comedy in a restaurant as Astin’s Harry is explaining the plot of Big Deal on Madonna Street to Ingels’ Fenster and Ketchum’s Warshaw…but Harry keeps getting interrupted as a result of his being seated too close to the door to the kitchen, much to the amusement of another co-worker, Bob Mulligan (played the great Henry Beckman).  Harry’s irritation can clearly be detected in this exchange with his pal Arch:

ARCH: Saturday night…I think I’m due at somebody’s house for dinner…
HARRY: You’re always due at somebody’s house for dinner…
ARCH: Well, what’s that supposed to mean?
HARRY: Just what I said…
ARCH: You’re mad at Mulligan and that door and you’re takin’ it out on me…I’m no moocher!  If I’m not due for dinner, I don’t go…
HARRY: If you’re not due for dinner you don’t eat
ARCH: Oh yeah?
HARRY: Yeah!
MEL: Hey, you guys…if I wanted to hear a fight, I’d eat at home

Harry explains to Arch that he has social obligations to meet—that he should repay the people who’ve had him over to dine over the years, so Arch decides to throw a big “roof raiser” and invite everyone to whom he’s duty-bound, including Harry and wife Kate since they’ve had him over the most times.  (Also since he’s throwing the shindig at their house.)  In making the menu arrangements, Arch has to prune his list of guests to accommodate the caterer he’s hiring…and when he insists on inviting co-worker Mulligan, Harry puts his foot down—if the obnoxious Mulligan is going to be in attendance, no party.  Arch compensates for this by asking Mulligan if the party can be hosted at his house, and Harry parries by planning a gala for the same night; he even has the inspiration to invite their boss, Myron Bannister (the hilariously deadpan Frank DeVol), to insure everyone that works with them comes.  But Arch gets to Bannister first, and so Harry and Kate spend their Saturday night alone in pajamas playing gin until Arch comes by to plead with his friend to reconsider coming.  After some initial reluctance, Harry agrees and while Kate is getting dressed Arch introduces Harry to his date…Mulligan’s cousin.

ARLENE: You know, I’m awfully glad you’re coming to my cousin’s party…
HARRY: Well, I’m…I’m happy to count Bob Mulligan among my closest, at work and at play…
ARLENE: Oh, he’s very fond of you, too…
HARRY: Oh?
ARLENE: Yes, he’s always talking about you…the fun you two used to have together…playing cards, hunting, bowling…
HARRY (interrupting): Excuse me…he told you about the hunting trip?
ARLENE (laughing): Funniest story I ever heard…you and that moose…I know it by heart; he tells it every time he comes to Cleveland
(A look of terror can be seen on Harry’s face as Arch tries to warn his date off the subject…)
HARRY: They know about me and the moose in Cleveland?
ARLENE: Oh, yes!  And say…I meant to ask you something, Mr. Dickens…that time in the woods when you…
ARCH (interrupting): Arlene, I think we’d better go… (Rising off the couch) Harry, I’ll meet you at the party…
HARRY: Now wait a minute!  I want to hear this…what was your question, Arlene?
ARLENE: When you were swimming in that lake…and you hung your pants and shirt on what you thought was a branch of a tree (Arch buries his face in his hands as Arlene laughs)…did you really have to chase that moose three miles up a mountain just to get your clothes back?

Harry becomes furious once again, and changes his mind about going to the party (Arch: “There’ll be one empty place…”  Harry: “Invite the moose!”) just as Kate emerges from the bedroom, dressed and ready to go.  The Dickenses resume their gin game, and Arch soon returns—this time with Mulligan, who apologizes for being an asshat and laughing at Harry’s various predicaments, promising to be the picture of sobriety.  So Harry agrees to let bygones be bygones and while Kate returns to the bedroom to resume gussying up, Harry demonstrates to Arch and Mulligan how he puts on a tight cummerbund.   The article of clothing goes sailing out the window once Harry exhales and Mulligan is helpless with laughter.  That’s what leads to the camel being buried in a straw stack, only this time Arch insists he’s not returning to the party because he, too, has been insulted by the way Mulligan has treated his friend.  As a wrap-up, Harry dreads explaining to Kate that they are definitely not going to the party but she’s one step ahead of them…removing her wrap, she reveals underneath that she’s still in her housecoat.

The Dickens…Fenster set closes out with the hysterically funny “The Godfathers,” in which co-worker Mel is about to become a father…for the eleventh time…and Harry and Arch agree to baby-sit for his brood while his wife is delivering.  There’s some first-rate slapstick and sight gags in this one, my favorite has our heroes gathering up milk bottles for the milkman and the two of them go back and forth carrying multiple containers, culminating with Harry’s dragging of a milk urn to the door.  (Arch takes out a pad of paper and pencil to leave the man a note: “Please leave one cow.”)  Astin does some uproarious physical comedy in this outing, including falling over not just one but two skates and getting trapped in a converted bed.  I like how even though Astin’s character was considered the more sensible of the two he carries most of the slapstick…but I’ve also developed a new appreciation for his acting talent (he’s always been a favorite since my macabre childhood days staring at The Addams Family) because I get the impression that despite their exemplary chemistry he and Ingels never really got along on the show (and yet the only way you’d know this is by listening to Ingels’s audio commentary on “Harry, the Father Image”).

Among the bonuses on this set include a moving tribute to creator Stern, who left this world for a better one in mid-project…I’m hoping that the creative minds behind Volume 2 have something similar planned for Stern’s collaborator Mel Tolkin, who served as story editor and co-wrote many of the episodes (also working alongside the great Don Hinkley).  There’s also an amusing Ivory Soap commercial featuring Astin, Ingels and Henry as their characters, mot to mention a promo (which unfortunately doesn’t have the same video quality of the Ivory ad, but you do what you can with the tools you have) announcing the show’s premiere on ABC.  But above and beyond all that, there are sixteen half-hours of a show that was sadly canceled before its time; a marvelous blend of physical and verbal comedy that thankfully will see its second volume released soon.  Here’s a short preview of an episode I have not seen (it sounds hilarious—I like how Emmaline’s closing line in this clip reminds me of that current McDonald’s commercial), “Table Tennis, Anyone?”:

3 comments:

KimWilson said...

Not familiar with this, but you seem to be a big fan. Too bad it only lasted one season.

Elisson said...

I remember this show fondly even though I haven't seen it since I was about ten or eleven years old.

John Astin played opposite Cliff Robertson in the Twilight Zone episode "One Hundred Yards Over the Rim," one of the best of the series.

Suldog said...

I've been watching the DVD the past few days and enjoying it thoroughly. Sometimes, the things we recall fondly from childhood are lesser upon re-inspection. This is one of those I remembered fondly and was correct in doing so. Great fun.