Tuesday, June 25, 2013

“…’cause Dobie has to have a girl to call his own…”

Next Tuesday (July 2), Shout! Factory is officially releasing what I have often referred to here on the blog as my Holy Grail as far as DVD collections go.  It’s the complete series of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-63), a TV sitcom classic that I have also often talked about at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  Ever since I was introduced to Dobie and Maynard and the rest of the Central City gang on CBN back in the 1980s, I have been a devoted fan of a show that, while I admit hasn’t aged as well as other sitcoms of the same vintage, still resonates with me as both pointed social satire and a loving paean to nonconformity.

Premiering on September 28, 1959 on a Tuesday night (so the Shout! Factory Tuesday release date is kinda like kismet), The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was created by Max Shulman, an author-playwright who had released a collection of short stories about the character under that same title in 1951.  The book had first been adapted as an M-G-M film in 1953 (starring Bobby Van as Dobie and Debbie Reynolds), The Affairs of Dobie Gillis; when Shulman brought the character to TV he decided to put Dobie in high school (he was a college student in the original book and film) to appeal more to teenaged viewers.  (Later, Shulman penned a novel featuring Dobie and the gang, 1959’s I Was a Teenage Dwarf.)

And for the most part—that’s what set Dobie Gillis apart from most of the family/domestic comedies still on the air at that time.  Shows like The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, etc. featured teenagers as characters…but they often seemed more like mere extensions of their parents than genuine teens.  Dobie Gillis (Dwayne Hickman) was television’s first realistic teenager.  He chased girls; he wasn’t a bright student; he avoided work and schemed for money; he rebelled against his father (who most assuredly did not know best); he hung around weird kids (like our mothers were always telling us: “I don’t want you associating with so-and-so”).  And he talked to himself—well, technically the television audience, in one of the best examples of “breaking the fourth wall” in TV history.  He would sit in the city park underneath a statue of Rodin’s The Thinker, and contemplate where he was in life and what his future would hold—as well as commenting on whatever predicament he had gotten himself into of late.

He was the simple son of a grocer, Herbert T. Gillis (Frank Faylen)—whose store at 285 Norwood often provided a backdrop for Dobie’s escapades.  The social satire of the show was particularly pungent for sitcoms of that era: it was stressed that Dobie, because of his low intellect and even lower status, had precious little prospects in life; all Dobie knew was that he did not want to end up a grocer like his father.  Herbert loved his son, but in the early years of the show (primarily the first season), there was a prickliness to their relationship: Dobie was always exploiting his Dad to cadge money despite the senior Gillis being a tightfisted cheapskate.  After skirmishes with his son, Herbert would stare at the camera and say: “I gotta kill that boy…I just gotta.”  CBS wasn’t particularly wild about this aspect of the series and in the second season (with the episode “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Houn’ Dog”), the Herbert Gillis character was toned down and made more sympathetic.  It didn’t necessarily ruin the series, but it kind of muted its edginess a bit.

Dobie’s mother, Winifred (Florida Friebus), doted on her boy (often slipping him money behind his father’s back for dates) and occasionally could be a little smothery.  But she was also his fiercest champion; the only one capable of calming her husband down after Dobie had done something to drive him to distraction.  Amusingly, both Herbert and Winnie, despite their imperfections, were one of TV’s most loving couples—you often got the idea that the two of them snuck into the back storeroom for a little what-have-you from time to time, as much as they hugged and cuddled and danced and sang.  Dobie also had a brother Davey (played by Dwayne Hickman’s real-life bro Darryl) who turned up in a few episodes during the first season (he was away at college) but he soon vanished, never to be heard from again.  (In the fourth and last season, Bobby Diamond turned up in several episodes as Dobie’s cousin Duncan “Dunky” Gillis—a younger version of Dob who was added when his older cousin’s girl-chasing escapades had become a little stale.)

Dobie’s best friend was TV’s first beatnik, Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver).  (Incidentally, the “G” stands for “Walter.”)  A nonconformist regularly clad in a dirty, torn sweatshirt and sporting a goatee, Maynard loved jazz, playing the bongos and collecting esoterica like petrified frogs and tinfoil.  In the early episodes of the series, there was a teensy hint of menace about the character (he’s picked up and briefly jailed for vagrancy in the premiere episode, “Caper at the Bijou”) but as the series went on, he morphed into a naïve manchild merely at odds with the world, with no one to lean on but his “good buddy” Dobie.  He hated work almost as much as his best friend did (often reacting to the mere mention of the word with a screechy “WORK?!!”) and would frequently make his entrance after a character commented (as an example) that something was “vile, disgusting and low.” (Maynard: “You rang?”)  This gimmick was later “borrowed” for whenever Lenny & Squiggy would burst into the apartment of TV’s Laverne & Shirley.

As for “the many loves of Dobie Gillis”—two female characters that would appear on multiple occasions made their debut during the first season: “Love is a Science” introduced Dobie’s nemesis Zelda Gilroy (Sheila James Kuehl), whose devotion and love for the Dobster wasn’t quite reciprocated by the man for which she had set her cap.  Zelda, the smartest girl in the school, explained to Dobie that there was “propinquity” between the two of them: it was no use for him to fight it…they would eventually end up together.  (And they did…but I’m kind of getting ahead of the story.)  Zelda’s pet name for Dobie was “Poopsie,” and she would often wrinkle her nose at him like a rabbit while he helplessly wrinkled back.  (“Now cut that out!” he would yell in a dead-on impersonation of Jack Benny.)  Although Zelda was not the most attractive of girls, she was sensible, down-to-earth and knew what was best for Dobie; in one episode (“Dobie, Dobie, Who’s Got the Dobie?”) a girl also decides that Dobie is worth chasing after simply because Zelda wants him…and Zelda wants only the best.

The other frequent female character was the woman that Dobie would give his life, his love, his all—the money-hungry blonde temptress Thalia Menninger (Tuesday Weld).  Thalia’s obsession with money—for that was the only way she could see herself spending the rest of her life with a pauper like Gillis—fueled many of the program’s plots in the first season…though it would do Thalia a disservice to call her greedy, because the money wasn’t for her, you understand.  Her father was sixty years old and had a kidney condition and her mother wasn’t getting any younger; her sister had married a loafer (who daily ate his weight in groceries) and her brother was on his way to becoming a public charge.  Thalia owed it to her family to be their salvation, and when Dobie would protest that because he loved her money shouldn’t matter she would dismiss him with “Love won’t butter parsnips.”  The Thalia character disappeared after the first season (Weld and Hickman apparently had difficulty getting along) but returned for guest appearances in Season 3’s “Birth of a Salesman” and Season 4’s “What’s a Little Murder Between Friends?”

Dobie’s rival for the attentions of Thalia, BMOC Milton Armitage, appeared in five episodes during the first season—it was one of the first notable acting gigs for Warren Beatty before his breakthrough film role in Splendor in the Grass (1961).  It also wasn’t Beatty’s finest hour—he pretty much slept-walked through the role (he later dismissed the part as “absurd”) though one or two people have suggested to me that he was distracted by Weld, whom he had hoped to make one of his romantic conquests.  (The fact that Beatty only comes to life—doing a hilarious Marlon Brando impression—in “Dobie Gillis, Boy Actor,” the only installment in which he appeared that does not feature Weld’s Menninger would seem to support this.)  They replaced Milton Armitage with another privileged rich boy, Chatsworth Osborne, Jr. (Steve Franken), who proved to be a funnier antagonist for Dobie with his exaggerated Darien accent and frequent references to his “Moms” (“Moms will ship me off to military school faster than you can say ‘federal reserve note’”).  “Moms” was played by Doris Packer, who had also played Milton’s patrician matriarch—the first name, Clarice, remained the same.

Thanks to Shout! Factory rep Tom Chen, I was the beneficiary of a review copy of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis: The Complete Series.  It is a handsome box set, containing all 147 episodes from the program’s four-year-run…and a bonus disc in the Season 4 case has some interesting curios including the CBS pilot for the series (which is the same as the inaugural episode, “Caper at the Bijou,” except with extended footage at the end featuring messages from the cast urging on sponsors), three episodes of The Bob Cummings Show (a.k.a. Love That Bob) which Dwayne Hickman co-starred on from 1955-59 and an episode of The Stu Erwin Show (a.k.a. The Trouble with Father), which was one of James Kuehl’s early gigs.  There are clips from a 1960 telecast of The Dinah Shore Chevy Show featuring Hickman (a Dobie Gillis skit in color!) and from The Coke Time Special (also from 1960), hosted by Pat Boone and featuring Bob Denver and Edd Byrnes in their Maynard and Kookie (from 77 Sunset Strip) personas.  An interview with Dwayne Hickman (in which he does admit that he did channel Jack Benny often playing Dobie) and some PDF files from Max Shulman’s “vault” round out the goodies (the pilot for the potential Zelda spin-off is included in these).

Some of the episodes are a little rough.  20th Century Fox didn’t seem to be too dedicated to cleaning up some of the shows (I’ve noticed the same issues in watching reruns of Dobie on Me-TV) but I’ve noticed this mostly occurs in the first season (and Shout! issues a disclaimer on one of the episodes, “Rock-a-Bye Dobie,” that the elements aren’t completely up to snuff).  Diehard fans are going to overlook this; I know I am because I’m just giddy that the show has finally made it to DVD, and in spending a few days watching selected episodes I’ve discovered why I fell in love with the show in the first place.

I mentioned at the beginning of this review that Dobie Gillis was a unique sitcom because it looked at life through the eyes of a teenager—that and the snap, crackle, pop of the series makes it so refreshing to watch today.  And by “snap, crackle, pop” I mean the innovative editing of the series, the punchy, funny dialogue, the fresh characterizations.  You always expected the unexpected on Dobie Gillis; people popped up out of nowhere and the characters’ dialogue exchanges had a rhythm that was almost like jazz.  There was also a sentimentality about the show, which would always be cut with a lemon-like tartness to keep it from being too gloppy (Maynard’s frequent admission of “I’m gettin’ all misty, Dob”).

One of my favorite episodes is a first season installment entitled “Room at the Bottom”: Thalia, discouraged that Dobie is not going to amount to much in life, is nevertheless convinced that because her paramour is so likable he might be able to muddle through by making the right contacts…especially if his father allows him to attend an exclusive preparatory academy, Willoughby Hall.

Dobie is secure in the knowledge that his father will never agree to an extravagance…but he hasn’t counted on the persuasive powers of Ms. Menninger.  Herbert has a vision of his son becoming the BFF of the wealthy Winthrop van Money (Steve Franken, before he started playing Chatsworth) and the senior Money bestowing a chain of grocery stores upon Herbert T. in grateful acknowledgement of Dobie being a pal to young Winthrop.

So Dobie is going to be packed off to Willoughby…but there’s a chance for a stay of execution.  If he can get a perfect grade on his mathematics test (scoring 100), it will prove to Thalia that he’s is not a complete clod and that Dobie might be able to get ahead in life without having to schmooze.  But Mrs. Menninger did not raise any foolish girls; Thalia knows Dobie can’t pass that test.

Dobie and Maynard go over to the home of their math teacher, Mrs. Ruth Adams (Jean Byron), to ask for a little tutoring help.  Mr. Adams (John Bryant) takes advantage of the situation by asking the boys if they’ll baby-sit their son (Ronny Howard) while he and Mrs. A go out to the movies (to see The Monster That Devoured Cleveland, one of the show’s running gags in that it always seemed to be the only movie playing at Central City’s theater).  Disgruntled that they’ve been shanghaied into sitting, the two of them find a copy of the test they’re supposed to take the next day…and though they know it’s wrong, they agree to copy down the answers so Dobie can get a perfect grade and not have to go to Willoughby.

The next day, Ruth confesses to her husband that she suspects Dobie and Maynard cheated on the exam after she hands out the papers to the class and Thalia is delighted with Dobie’s perfect score.  She acknowledges it’s possible Dobie could have done that well but Maynard…anyway, Ruth is disillusioned and vows to her husband that she doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to trust Dobie and Maynard again.

And then Dobie and Maynard return to the classroom…to confess their vile deed.  Mrs. Adams is overjoyed (“You’ve made me very happy”), and while she will have to flunk both of them (Maynard: “This makes you happy?” ) her faith in her students has been restored.  She tells Thalia as she and her husband leave: “You have a fine, sweet, sensitive, wonderful boy.”

Thalia responds: “Yes, I have a fine, sweet, wonderful, sensitive boy…who’s never going to make a dime!”

“Room at the Bottom” was later recycled into a third season episode, “Dobie Gillis: Wanted Dead or Alive,” with Leander Pomfritt (William Schallert) the instructor and his poetry exam the test Dobie and Maynard cheat on.  Pomfritt was another great character on the show; a cynical-around-the-edges teacher (he often greeted his class with “Hello, my young unemployables…”) whose dedication to his profession often trampled on his pessimism.  (He’s the subject of another favorite Dobie episode of mine, the second season closer “Goodbye, Mr. Pomfritt – Hello Mr. Chips.”)  Pomfritt taught at Central High School in the first two seasons of the show, then became the gang’s instructor at S. Peter Pryor Junior College when the series shifted gears in Season 3 (Dobie and Maynard also served a temporary hitch in the peacetime Army in the latter part of Season 2).  Jean Byron returned to the show in the guise of a different professor, Imogene Burkhart (the in-joke was that this was Byron’s real name)—and it always amused me that after Dobie Gillis ended its run Schallert and Byron played husband and wife on The Patty Duke Show.

By its fourth and last season, Dobie Gillis had sort of lost its mojo; interestingly, Hickman’s Dobie started to recede into the background as more of a straight man while Denver’s Krebs took center stage in many of the episodes (some with a surrealistic, fantastical bent like “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Gillis” and “Requiem for an Underweight Heavyweight”).  I remember reading one time a critique of Gilligan’s Island in which the author tried to argue that while Denver made a great second banana on Gillis he simply wasn’t capable of carrying the star load on Gilligan (I get the feeling he didn’t watch Dobie much…and as Peter Nellhaus suggested to me on Facebook, there’s a reason why Shout! features Denver prominently on the cover).  There was an attempt to rekindle interest in the series in 1977 with a half-hour pilot entitled Whatever Happened to Dobie Gillis?—I never saw it; our CBS affiliate in Charleston, WV refused to air it for some reason or another—and in 1988, a reunion TV-movie aired entitled Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis that brought back most of the still-living cast with the exception of Beatty and Weld (Connie Stevens played Thalia, and I thought she did rather well).

If you’re a fan of the show, you are going to move Heaven and Earth to get a copy of this box set; despite imperfections in some of the episodes (hey…you work with the tools you get) Shout! Factory has done a bang-up job on bringing one of the essential cult TV sitcoms to DVD.  (Did you know Frank Zappa was a big fan of this show?  Honest to my grandma!)  I’m just grateful that it’s here at long last, and I hope the clips I included in the essay (heck, even the essay itself) have stoked your interest to make The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis: The Complete Series your very own.  (“Dobieeeee…”)


VP81955 said...

A terrific salute to the first prime-time series I was a regular fan of, one that would appear to be very much of its time, but had a tempo and tone that makes it hold up more than half a century later (its breakneck pace made "Dobie" to sitcoms what Little Richard was to rock 'n' roll). And I've been lucky enough to interview both Hickman and Schallert as well.

Terence Towles Canote said...

As you already know, Dobie Gillis is one of my favourite sitcoms of all time. I think it was incredibly innovative. In fact, I think of it as the first true Sixties sitcom (even if it debuted in 1959). Aside from centring on teenagers, it had a pace that made its contemporaries seem slow by comparison. And its humour could not only be biting, but also very broad and even surreal at times. I think it can be counted as the direct forerunner of such Sixties comedies as The Monkees, He & She, and even such diverse entries as Bewitched and Get Smart. It's really a shame it is not better known today!ab

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Vince spoke up:

its breakneck pace made "Dobie" to sitcoms what Little Richard was to rock 'n' roll

Very nice.

And I've been lucky enough to interview both Hickman and Schallert as well.

I'm not jealous of this. My complexion is not green due to envy, it's because...um...jet lag! Yeah, that's the ticket...

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Terry put in his two cents:

I think it was incredibly innovative. In fact, I think of it as the first true Sixties sitcom (even if it debuted in 1959).

If I stopped to think about how much of an influence Dobie Gillis had on my sense of humor, I think the implications would be staggering. I quote from it all the time ("You're, like, a real human being").

It's really a shame it is not better known today

A Facebook friend of mine told me that he really wanted to like the series...but he thought there was just a little too much Bob Denver. And I can certainly see his point; the Maynard character kind of took over that show in later seasons like Fonzie conquered Happy Days.

James Vance said...

Another thing that impressed me about the show at the time was the feel of late '50s urban funk, almost a "Naked City" or "Car 54" vibe to the scenes in the grocery, despite the apparent small-city setting. The Shulman influence, I'm sure, a welcome change from so many of the fresh-scrubbed sitcoms of the time (and since).

Back in those days, our local CBS affiliate produced a live March of Dimes fundraiser every year for which they'd bring in TV stars to perform, usually wearing their familiar costumes. I remember Abby Dalton showing up from "Hennessey" and Kirby Grant dressed as Sky King and impressing everyone with his singing ability. Uncle Sky had nice pipes.

During the first year or two of "Dobie," Bob Denver showed up at the fundraiser in full Maynard regalia, and my mother took me to the big hall where the show was performed just so I could meet him. I remember the two of us trailing him as he dashed around the hall, my mother calling out "Maynard - Maynard" until he finally gave up and turned to us. He turned out to be thoroughly abashed for having forced a grown woman to chase him and apologized for thinking that he was being stalked by "some kid." He chatted with us for several minutes and was charming and polite. At the age of five or six, I was mostly impressed with his goatee and the holes in his sweatshirt. It's a memory that still makes me smile.

I'm glad to hear that the show's going to be available again. Your write-up makes your own love for the series clear.

The Metzinger Sisters said...

I like how Dobie is featured with a different gal on each disc cover. That looks like a great set, and YES, a long awaited for one. ( Giving a shout out to Shout! ) This was a childhood favorite of mine too - from tv reruns - and I always enjoyed Dobie's philosophies on life best.... even though they weren't always sound.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

James Vance walked up to the podium:

Kirby Grant dressed as Sky King and impressing everyone with his singing ability

Kirby shows off his pipes in the Olsen & Johnson comedy Ghost Chasers, which is tremendously hooty.

During the first year or two of "Dobie," Bob Denver showed up at the fundraiser in full Maynard regalia, and my mother took me to the big hall where the show was performed just so I could meet him. I remember the two of us trailing him as he dashed around the hall, my mother calling out "Maynard - Maynard" until he finally gave up and turned to us. He turned out to be thoroughly abashed for having forced a grown woman to chase him and apologized for thinking that he was being stalked by "some kid." He chatted with us for several minutes and was charming and polite. At the age of five or six, I was mostly impressed with his goatee and the holes in his sweatshirt. It's a memory that still makes me smile.

When Denver relocated to Princeton, WV in his retiring years, he occasionally appeared as a weatherman on one of the local TV stations according to some friends of mine. Never got the opportunity to see him but I find the concept of Maynard G. Krebs, meteorologist screamingly funny. ("It's, like, partly cloudy...")

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

The Sisters Metzinger gushed:

I like how Dobie is featured with a different gal on each disc cover.

The packaging/artwork for these discs is really first-rate. Dobie and Zelda are featured on the fourth season case in a wedding pose...which kind of foreshadows where the reunion movie went. :-)