Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Me-TV’s Summer of Classic TV Blogathon: The Mothers-in-Law

This post is part of Me-TV's Summer of Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Go here to view more posts in this blogathon. You can also go to the Me-TV Network website to learn more about Me-TV and view its summer line-up of classic TV shows.

From 1951 to 1960, actor-bandleader Desi Arnaz was a familiar face on TV screens as the perpetually perplexed husband (nightclub entertainer Ricky Ricardo) to wacky housewife Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) on the popular sitcoms I Love Lucy (1951-57) and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1957-60).  It didn’t occur to individuals until many years after those programs went off the air to realize that—while certainly not taking anything away from Lucy—Desi played an integral part in his wife’s success; his comedic instincts far outshining his straight man role.  Arnaz also became a respected small screen mogul behind the scenes; it was his decision to purchase the RKO studios in 1957 that expanded the TV empire the couple had founded as Desilu, which in the beginning was formed purely to sell the I Love Lucy pilot to network executives.

But Desilu soon became a force to be reckoned with in the industry.  Its studio space was used by many hit TV programs like My Three Sons and The Dick Van Dyke Show, and it was able to create homegrown hits like December Bride and The Untouchables.  (It also gave audiences a first glance at what would eventually become TV’s The Twilight Zone via an audition on an anthology program called The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse.)  Arnaz stayed on as president of the company until November 1962, when he sold his holdings to his ex-wife, and stayed out of TV until 1966, when he returned to form Desi Arnaz Productions.  His attempts to sell pilots like The Carol Channing Show and Land’s End as regular series did not work out as he hoped—but he was able to convince NBC to air a sitcom in the fall of 1967 created by former I Love Lucy scribes Madelyn Davis and Bob Carroll, Jr.  It would be known as The Mothers-in-Law.

The premise behind the show was devastatingly simple: the daughter of a staid, buttoned-down family (the Hubbards) elopes with the son of a more unconventional married duo (the Buells)—thus making the two couples in-laws.  The concept was originally pitched with the idea of starring Eve Arden and Ann Sothern as the “mothers”; both actresses were longtime friends of producer Arnaz, with Eve starring in the hit sitcom Our Miss Brooks (produced by Desilu) and Sothern headlining both Private Secretary and a self-titled series, The Ann Sothern Show (Secretary was filmed at Desilu but was produced by Jack Chertok).  NBC thought the comedic styles of Arden and Sothern too similar, and suggested to Arnaz that they find an actress who would offer an “ethnic” counterpoint to Eve—and so Kaye Ballard, a veteran TV presence who was also an Arnaz chum, was picked to play Arden’s “nemesis.”

The roles of the spouses went to longtime character favorites Herbert Rudley (as Eve’s better half, Herb Hubbard) and Roger C. Carmel (Roger C. Buell, husband to Kaye), with disc jockey Jerry Fogel landing the part of the son (also named Jerry—you may be detecting a pattern here).  Actress Kay Cole originated the role of daughter Suzie (the only instance where the pattern was broken) in the pilot but by the time the show premiered on September 10, 1967, Deborah Walley (a veteran from the Beach Party movies) has been cast in the part.  (In a DVD featurette for MPI Home Video’s collection of The Mothers-in-Law: The Complete Series, Ballard remarked that she wasn’t sure why Cole was replaced—but that Kay eventually moved on to appear in the original version of the Broadway musical A Chorus Line.)   The program not only had a prominent sponsor (Procter and Gamble) but a dream time slot, nestled in between Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Bonanza.  It seemed destined to be a hit.

After one season, however, The Mothers-in-Law was an underperformer—failing to garner the ratings on which NBC had high hopes.  Procter & Gamble had planned to move the series to another network (ABC), but NBC gave the show a stay of execution and agreed to renew The Mothers-in-Law for a second year…provided the series was produced at the same cost as the inaugural season.  All of the cast members agreed to this proviso—with the exception of actor Carmel, who had been promised a pay raise per his contract and who told Desi Arnaz that it was non-negotiable.  So Carmel was replaced in Season Two by TV veteran Richard Deacon (Leave it to Beaver, The Dick Van Dyke Show)—and while Roger certainly should be commended for his integrity, his decision to buck Arnaz saddled him with a reputation for being “difficult,” and he lost out on work afterward for an indefinite period.  Carmel can claim the last laugh on this, however—the ratings for the show’s second season did not improve, and NBC gave The Mothers-in-Law its pink slip, replacing (according to a featurette featuring Ballard on The Doris Day Show: Season 4 DVD set) it with The Bill Cosby Show.

Because of the complicated legalities involving just who officially owned the rights to the series—Arnaz Productions, United Artists Television, MGM and CBS Television Distribution all laid claim to the show, as well as Eve Arden’s estate—it took a while for the series to finally surface on DVD (which it did, courtesy of MPI and Desilu, Too in July of 2010).  For syndication purposes, the sitcom was seen spottily since its cancellation…mostly in scratchy prints from 16mm.  Thankfully, everything has been entangled and the show can currently be seen on Sundays at 2pm EDT on Me-TV.

As to how well the show holds up—well, The Mothers-in-Law has its defenders and detractors.  Several people in my circle of classic television friends argue that the show is an outdated relic from the 1960s, and episodes like “How Not to Manage a Rock Group” (04/28/68) provide prima facie proof of this: son Jerry (Fogel) agrees to manage a rock band called The Warts—played by the real-life musical garage rock aggregation The Seeds, whom you might remember from their hit Pushin’ Too Hard (which they sing on the show).  There’s a scene in which the Hubbards and Buells have difficulty understanding counterculture slang words like “gassy” and “bread” that’ll make some people wonder why others think that era was so great.  (In the episode’s defense, it’s redeemed towards the finale by an appearance from the incomparable Joe Besser—playing a Salvation Army-esque leader who has his band accompany the couples in their rendition of Some Enchanted Evening.)

Personally, I’m a big fan of the series.  Most of my appreciation for The Mothers-in-Law has to do with my longtime affection for Eve Arden, the star of one of old-time radio’s greatest sitcoms (and a TV staple as well), Our Miss Brooks.  As Eve Hildegarde Windsor Hubbard, Arden brought the brittle sarcasm of Connie Brooks to the fore and her one-of-a-kind delivery of punchlines was often able to salvage even the weakest of scripts.  In the DVD featurette, Ballard recollects that the reason why so many of the series’ episodes had the cast cutting loose in musical numbers was all about Eve—the lady liked to sing and dance.  One of the running gags during the first season had the Eve Hubbard character breaking out into a version of Because with Ballard’s Kaye Buell anytime they found themselves near a piano—it’s the song the two women had wanted to sing at their children’s wedding before those silly kids up and eloped.

I’m also a huge fan of Kaye Ballard—whose character of Katherine “Kaye” Josephina Balotta Buell often reminds me of my Aunt Jane…also as Italian and excitable as Ms. Buell.   One of my favorite episodes with the emphasis on Ballard is “The Wig Story” (03/03/68), in which Kaye borrows Eve’s blond wig and puts it on for husband Roger just to make him laugh.  It turns out to have the opposite effect: Roger is turned on by the faux hair, and Kaye leaps to the conclusion that her hubby would rather be married to a blonde and not her.  She gets depressed, and Eve’s attempts to bring her round are hysterical (in one scene, Arden tries to manipulate the corners of Ballard’s mouth into a smile, which never fails to send me to the floor); Eve finally dons a red wig (any relation to a certain ginger-haired TV comedienne is purely coincidental) and asks husband Herb to make a fuss over her in order to help get the Buells back together…but they wind up having the same fight as their friends.

Ballard mentions in the Complete Series DVD featurette that the idea for “The Wig Story” was one she suggested to the show’s script consultants, Carroll and Davis—she also provided the impetus for “Who’s Afraid of Elizabeth Taylor?” (10/22/67), in which Kaye blows up at Roger’s innocent infatuation with the actress; and the second season opener “Here Comes the Bride, Again” (09/15/68), where Kaye’s grandmother (marvelously played by TDOY fave Jeanette Nolan) faints any time she doesn’t get her way (Ballard explains her mother did the same thing in real life).  My friend Maureen once e-mailed me to excitedly announce that she had an encounter with Ballard in real-life and joked: “It was all I could do to keep from sneering ‘Oh, reeeeeeallly?’”  (I responded “You should have bit your fist in front of her”—prompting her to reply “Why are you never around when I meet these people?”)

The Mothers-in-Law is great comedy because of the amazing chemistry between Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard; their two characters an incredible blend of best friends and sworn enemies.  Decades before Marie Barone (Doris Roberts) on Everybody Loves Raymond couldn’t refrain from interfering in her son and daughter-in-law’s life, Eve and Kaye were the prototypes for meddling in-laws…and yet they do this in a way that’s free of any malice—they genuinely love their kids and only want to do what’s best for them.  At the time the show went on the air, Jerry Fogel—who played Ballard’s son—was thirty years old…and Kaye was 38.  (“I guess I must have had that kid in Brazil,” she muses in the featurette.)

A friend of mine had trouble warming up to the show because she thought it was essentially a watered-down I Love Lucy wannabe.  I can’t deny that The Mothers-in-Law doesn’t contains echoes of that iconic sitcom (the Davis-Carroll connection explains this) but my motto has always been “If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.”  Many of the funniest episodes feature Lucy-like slapstick situations: in “The Newlyweds Move In” (10/08/67), Eve and Kaye are trapped on top of an open garage door that functions as one of the walls of the kids’ renovated apartment, and “How Do You Moonlight a Meatball?” (11/05/67) finds the two women hiding the evidence (meatballs and marinara sauce) of their DIY business from their husbands on top of that same garage door…until son-in-law Jerry activates the door, drenching Roger and Herb.

The recurring I Love Lucy theme of “the battle of the sexes” was also in full force on The Mothers-in-Law; many of the episodes embrace the premise of having the husbands teach their wives a lesson (usually for failing to refrain from interfering in their children’s affairs) and even employ the device of having Herb and Roger conveniently leaving the room (“Let’s go over to my house and do something in order to allow our wives to plot”) so Eve and Kaye can go into action.  Admittedly, it’s a timeworn method that can’t hide its seams in some of the weaker episodes…but occasionally it’s used with a bit of cleverness; a good example is “A Night to Forget” (10/01/67), in which Eve and Kaye are forbidden to make any more phone calls to the kids while they’re on their honeymoon.  The two women are struck with inspiration as they’re returning a wedding gift to a local department store—they’ll just call Jerry and Suzie on a pay phone—but wind up getting locked inside the store after hours.

“A Night to Forget” introduced a recurring character in Raphael Delgado, a matador from Barcelona, Spain whom Eve and Kaye accidentally phone while in the department store (Eve isn’t paying attention to the number she’s dialing and it turns out to be their last dime)…and who is asked to call their husbands to let them know of their plight.  (I won’t defend the far-fetchedness of this—but the episode is one of my favorites only because of a riotous scene in which Arden, Ballard, Carmel and Rudley pretend to be store mannequins to avoid detection by police.)  Delgado was played by Desi himself, and he would reprise the role in three additional episodes: the two-part “The Hombre Who Came to Dinner” (01/14 & 01/21/68) and the second season “The Matador Makes a Movie” (10/27/68).  (Part of actor Carmel’s salary dispute with Desi had to do with the fact that Arnaz was collecting multiple salaries: producer, creator, director and writer…and occasionally adding “actor” to his credits.)  Arnaz was one of several guest stars who appeared on the program (others included Jimmy Durante and Don Rickles) in addition to first-rate character veterans like the aforementioned Nolan, Jerry Hausner (I guess he must have patched things up with Arnaz after the I Love Lucy skirmish), Shirley Mitchell, Benny Rubin and Alan Reed.

Back in February 2009, when the plans to release The Mothers-in-Law to DVD were first being talked about, my friend Linda at Yet Another Journal argued that replacing Carmel in the second season with Richard Deacon was a slight disappointment in that Deac approached the role of Roger Buell in too conventional a manner.  After revisiting many of the episodes for the blogathon, I have to agree that she’s right; I still liked Deacon, but sometimes it seemed as if he were a clone of Rudley’s Herb Hubbard; he lacked the “off-the-wall” (as Linda aptly puts it) quality that Carmel originally infused in the character.  The dynamic between the Roger and Kaye characters changed as a result of the casting switch as well—they started to morph into Ethel and Fred Mertz instead of the couple that affectionately addressed one another as “Cookie” (Kaye) and “Cutes” (Rog).  The disappointment is particularly present in one of my favorite second season episodes, “Love Thy Neighbor... if You Can't Make Them Move” (10/06/68), which is a flashback to when the Buells first moved next door to the Hubbards (it would have been grand to see Carmel in this).

On the Original Series featurette, Kaye Ballard expresses the regret that the cast never got the opportunity to say goodbye to one another—they had all assumed NBC would pick up the show for a third season and never had an official “wrap” party.  My regret is that the series was cancelled just when it had picked up a full head of steam; some of the second season episodes are really first-rate (the writing got a lot stronger by then) including “The Match Game” (09/22/68), with guest star Paul Lynde in charge of a computer dating agency (the Hubbards and Buells pretend to be clients so son-in-law Jerry won’t lose his job—Arden and Ballard are hysterical as Italian and Irish, respectively), and “And Baby Makes Four" (01/19/69), which brings the Hubbards and Buells’ grandchildren into the world—over the course of many episodes, Eve and Kaye would bicker over whether Suzie’s baby would be a boy or a girl…and they both get their wish in twins (the girl is named Hildy after Eve’s middle name, and the boy Joey for Kaye’s “Josephina”).  I highly recommend the DVD collection to the show’s fans—there are a wealth of goodies on the set including the original unaired pilot with Kay Cole as Suzie (it’s essentially the same as the inaugural episode “On Again, Off Again, Lohengrin”), an unproduced script and the failed pilots for The Carol Channing Show and Land’s End.  But if you want to sample before you buy, you can check out the antics of best frenemies Eve Hubbard and Kaye Buell on The Mothers-in-Law, Sunday afternoons on Me-TV…Memorable Entertainment Television.


Mitchell Hadley said...

Really interesting, Ivan. I've known of The Mothers-in-Law, of course, but I've never known that much about it. I might have seen an episode or two of it when I was a kid but, if so, I don't remember anything of it. I may have to check it out now, though, if for no other reason than to see Kaye Ballard and, especially, Eve Arden. Those are two funny ladies!

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

Ivan, what a fabulous history of a series that ended before its time! It does seem more dated than other shows (e.g., I LOVE LUCY) when watching it today--but less so than THE BRADY BUNCH or PARTRIDGE FAMILY. The secret to the show's success is--as you highlighted so well--the interplay between Arden and Ballard. Frankly, I thought that Deacon (always a reliably amusing star) was an upgrade over Carmel. I'm glad that you sang Desi's praises as pioneering TV producer. A lot of non-classic TV fans are oblivious to that side of him.

Hal said...

I've been DVR'ing THE MOTHERS IN LAW since last summer when Me also aired it on Sundays. I agree the chemistry was better with Carmel and it's a shame he left just before the writers started to hit stride.

Still a really funny series, with Ballard's contribution a particular highlight for me.

Amanda By Night said...

What a wonderful article! I discovered the series via Me-TV last year and have enjoyed the episodes I've seen. On IMDb Fogel actually posted a comment that he loved working with Ballard, and that doing the series is one of his favorite memories. That was so nice to read.

Arden and Ballard had chemistry to spare. Both are wonderful, and the colors on the show really pop. I also agree with Classic Film and TV Cafe that it's not as dated as some of the early 70s shows he mentioned (and I love those too). Plus, it makes me laugh, and that's all that matters!

Anonymous said...

I loved this series -- and what a great, thorough post. I saw the first few episodes on Me-TV recently, and I was struck by how much you could tell it was the I Love Lucy writers -- much of the dialog could have been the Ricardos and Mertzes.

Gilby37 said...

Awesome post! I too love Eve and Kaye. While the stories maybe dated in some respects,the interplay between the two ladies still stands up well!bcal

Joanna said...

This is one of those series I had only read about--until I finally was able to watch it on Me-TV! LOVE Eve Arden! Thanks for writing this piece.

Troy Y. said...

The Mothers-In-Law is not a show I was familiar with until your excellent post, but anything that includes a Star Trek era Roger C. Carmel will certainly grab my attention. I'm definitely going to look for this one on Me-TV.

Dan in Missouri said...

I got the DVD set when it came out and showed it to my grandchildren, who have no concept of the history of the show or the stars, and they loved it.

Caftan Woman said...

I have fond memories of enjoying "The Mothers-in-Law", but I haven't seen the show since its original airing. I never can watch "The King and I" without remembering Marni Nixon's guest episode. Don't tell me my memory is failing me.

The Lady Eve said...

I last watched "The Mothers-in-Law" when it was a network series. Would not have missed an Eve Arden show for anything (having been a huge fan of the TV version of "Our Miss Brooks"). Unfortunately, I don't remember that much about the program beyond the fact that I liked it - with the exception of Deborah Walley, who I found irritating (it began with "Gidget Goes Hawaiian"). I'll have to give "The Mothers-in-Law" (couldn't they have come up with a catchier title?) another look.

Classicfilmboy said...

Fun post! I have not seen the show, but with those two stars, it's something I should see. You did a fine job of detailing why you like it, and I think I'd feel the same way as you do.

Citizen Screen said...

Great read! I've not seen one single episode of The Mothers In Law. Sadly. But I do love both its stars - Eve Arden in particular.


Stacia said...

Great write-up, Ivan -- I really need to give this show a watch!