Friday, March 21, 2014

Big Stars on the Small Screen Blogathon – Gunsmoke: “The Jailer” (10/01/66)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Big Stars on the Small Screen Blogathon, hosted by Aurora at How Sweet it Was this March 20th and 21st.  For more information on the participating blogs and the topics discussed, click here.

Situations wanted—women artists: Mother of three—10, 11 & 15—divorcee. American. Thirty years experience as an actress in Motion Pictures. Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood. (Has had Broadway).

The above was an ad placed by two-time Oscar winner Bette Davis in a September 1962 edition of Variety…an announcement that Davis later confessed was meant to be a joke.  Rib-tickler or no, although Davis wasn’t completely absent from movie screens at this juncture of her career, most of her films were concentrated in the area of cinematic horror.  Her success in the 1962 classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (for which she netted a sweet ten percent of the box-office hit’s worldwide gross profits) led to other campy excursions like Dead Ringer (1964), Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964) and The Nanny (1965).  Other films from that era that prominently featured Davis include Pocketful of Miracles (1961) and Where Love Has Gone (1964).

But there’s always been a streak of cruelty in Hollywood, where there’s a sell-by date on many of its silver screen legends.  Actors and actresses adapted in many ways: some returned to the stage, others drifted into character roles.  Still others made concessions into (gulp) television.  Robert Montgomery and Loretta Young are just two examples of classic movie stars who headlined successful boob tube shows.

And thus it was decreed that Bette Davis, the Best Actress Oscar winner of 1935 (Dangerous) and 1938 (Jezebel), would make the inevitable dramatic pilgrimage to home audiences as well.  La Bette actually started doing this as far back as the 1950s, with guest roles on anthology favorites as The 20th Century-Fox Hour, Schlitz Playhouse, The Ford Television Theatre, General Electric Theater and The DuPont Show with June Allyson (another refugee from the big screen, though her show came courtesy of her husband, budding TV mogul Dick Powell).  Davis also seemed quite fond of the Western anthology Wagon Train; she appeared in three episodes of that long-running series, as well as a memorable Alfred Hitchcock Presents outing and an episode of The Virginian that we mentioned on the blog back in December of 2010. 

One of Bette’s most noteworthy small screen appearances was on an episode of Perry Mason; when star Raymond Burr had to sit out four episodes of his popular series due to surgery (he was reduced to cameo appearances), Davis filled in on one installment as the titular attorney of “The Case of Constant Doyle.” But my favorite Davis television work remains an episode of a series that I have never been shy about plugging here at TDOY in the past.  In “The Jailer,” the third episode of the twelfth season of Gunsmoke—the dean of television westerns—(Miss) Bette Davis plays a woman named Etta Stone; a hardened harridan who has sworn to avenge the hanging of her husband by kidnapping Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake) and marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness).

A 1971 TV Guide listing for a repeat showing of "The Jailer."

Ma Stone and her boys: (l-r) Robert Sorrells, Davis, Bruce Dern, Zalman King, Tom Skerritt.
Etta accomplishes her mission with the help of three sons that have just finished a six-year hitch in the sneezer; we see them—Lou (Bruce Dern), Mike (Robert Sorrells), and Jack (Zalman King)—getting off a wagon operated by three prison officials (one for each brother, I’m guessing) at the beginning of the episode.  The trio of outlaws go right to work, putting the snatch on Kitty just as she’s closing up…and they take her to the Stone homestead, where they are given an “attaboy” from their mother.  Etta has an additional son in Ben (Tom Skerritt), who has become quite chummy with Lou’s wife Sara (Julie Sommars) while Lou has been subsisting on the bounty of the county.  Despite his objections, it’s Lou who’s sent into town to inform Dillon that the Stone clan have Kitty in their clutches (he shows Matt a ring from Kitty’s finger to prove he’s not talking smack) and that he needs to follow, saying nothing to anyone.  If you have only a passing acquaintance with Gunsmoke, you know that while things were always a bit romantically chaste between Dodge City’s peacekeeper and the owner of the Long Branch, the surest way to cheese ol’ Matt Dillon off was to kidnap his woman.

Wardrobe from the Die! Die! My Darling collection.

Etta informs Matt that he’s to be executed in the same manner as her husband—he was strung up on the morning of his second day of incarceration.  Matt tries to explain to the gal with the crazy “Bette Davis Eyes” that it was the state of Kansas who ordered Mr. Stone to be put to death…he just works there.  That don’t matter no never mind to Etta; she keeps Dillon under lock-and-key in a tack room and allows him ten minutes of “conjugal visit” with Kitty before he’s marched off to the gallows.  In the meantime, Kitty tries every method at the disposal of her feminine wiles to escape the Stones…and just about has son Jack on board with helping her and Matt out when Ma Stone discovers them trying to make a break for it in the barn…and she shoots and kills Jack.

Jack’s death is a bit of a disappointment for Ben—he’s also entertained ideas of helping Matt and Kitty escape, ostensibly because he’s fallen hard for Sara while Lou was in the pokey; Etta and her boys don’t treat the young girl too kindly, considering her little more than a scullery maid.  Just when all seems hopeless for Matt and Kitty, Sara smuggles a six-shooter on a tray and Dillon does what he does best: he sends Mike, Lou and Ma to The Happy Hunting Ground as the curtain rings down on our play.

Actor Bruce Dern, recently a Best Actor Oscar nominee for his work in Nebraska (2013), was just starting to build a movie and television resume at the time “The Jailer” went before the TV cameras; he had small but noticeable parts in Wild River (1960) and Marnie (1964), and he co-starred with future Hawaii Five-O star Jack Lord in the short-lived TV oater Stoney Burke (which also featured Warren Oates) in addition to guest roles on Route 66, Naked City, Thriller and The Outer Limits, to name a few of the many.  In a DVD commentary for “The Jailer”—available on the Gunsmoke: 50th Anniversary, Volume 2 box set—Dern gave generous credit to both Bette and Sir Alfred Hitchcock for investing “themselves in my career and my kind of well-being as an actor...and help[ing] promote me as an actor.”  He goes on to say: “Both for some reason put their arms around me, liked me and thought I was good and gave me tremendous opportunity—although Bette wasn't in a position to cast me in things, she guided me and watched me.”  Both Dern and Davis had appeared in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, with Bruce playing the role of Bette’s character’s fiancé in the flashbacks of the early part of the film.

Seeing one of the women for which he had a great deal of admiration doing “episodic television” left a disillusioned impression on Dern at the time:

The first day I worked on this show was the hardest individual day for me, emotionally, that I've ever had in the business...because...I got tears in my eyes when I saw Miss Davis on the set...I was just crushed, I couldn't believe Bette Davis was doing a Gunsmoke...I just couldn't believe it...I mean, she kicked my ass over it...I just said, "Why?"  And she said, "I have to eat! I have to pay for my're always on me about smoking!"

Build my gallows high, baby.

It seems at first glance like Bette might be slumming in this episode…but it doesn’t take long from the moment she makes her entrance before she shows the audience why she’s got a pair of Oscars as bookends.  As Etta Stone (her last name is quite appropriate), she rules the roost in that household; when she confronts the feisty Kitty (as she wrestles to take Kitty’s ring off her finger) she snaps out at her: “Don’t talk flippant—you ain’t in no position!”  She’ll prove to be a formidable match for Dodge City’s marshal; I never cease to be in awe of the Dillon character but I think if I personally came up against Bette Davis (and Bruce Dern, for that matter) I’d be spending the rest of the episode curled up in a fetal position and whimpering (after first wetting myself, of course).

Davis also gives us a brief glance at her character’s softer side; a sequence in which Etta Stone visits the grave of her husband (which is covered with rocks, in keeping with the motif of the family name) finds the woman lamenting about everything in her life has been all about meting out vengeance to Dillon…and after that, she’ll have no further purpose.  We see this sympathetic Etta for only a moment (and tellingly, out of the sight of her sons); she soon snaps back into ball-breaking mode when she catches the traitorous Jack about to head for the tall grass with Kitty and busts a cap in him.  The relationship between Etta and son Lou is an odd one; she refers to him as “my one true son”…which generates speculation that perhaps is best left unexplored.

Hush...hush, sweet Charlotte...

“The Jailer” was one of co-star Amanda Blake’s favorite Gunsmoke episodes, since it allowed her to work with one of the best actresses of that or of any generation…but what remains so amazing is that Davis was also supported by a first-rate supporting cast in Dern, Tom Skerritt (M*A*S*H, Alien) and Zalman King (the writer-director-producer of Red Shoe Diaries).  Both Skerritt and King made multiple appearances on the show in various roles (five each) while Dern graced four installments; Julie Sommars (later of The Governor and J.J. and Matlock) also appeared on the series four times (“The Jailer” would be her last episode) and Robert Sorrells had them all beat, turning up in some fourteen Gunsmoke outings.  Working with the great Bette Davis must have been like paying to attend a party for all involved, and Bruce Dern sums up the experience better than anyone:

I've worked with lots of grand dames, but five or six stand out as just being absolute class...Miss Davis is one, Amanda [Blake] is one, Miss [Olivia] de Havilland is one, Ann-Margret is one, Lee Remick, class by herself...Geraldine Page, class by herself...they're just women who did it all...who had tremendous game as actresses...endured a great deal of both hardship and heartbreak and everything else on the way, the journey through Hollywood...who were told at forty that it would be over...and none of them took that as being over...


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Splendid essay, as usual, Ivan. I wonder if part of our fascination with big stars on the small screen is the illusion that we are seeing them in a more intimate setting, which is the familiar show on the trusty TV-one of the family-in the comfort of our homes. Bette Davis makes for a terrorizing and terrific house guest.

Caftan Woman said...

Love that picture of Bette and Amanda smiling, apparently so pleased with themselves and the day's work. Also, loved your look at "The Jailor".

I adore Bruce Dern's commentary on the DVD. I don't know what I expected, but I didn't expect him to be so chatty. I imagine the engineer shutting down and the crew putting out the lights and Dern still sitting there chatting up a storm.

TV was invented so we could watch "Gunsmoke".

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I adore Bruce Dern's commentary on the DVD. I don't know what I expected, but I didn't expect him to be so chatty. I imagine the engineer shutting down and the crew putting out the lights and Dern still sitting there chatting up a storm.

If I hadn't seen Dern on the Oscars telecast, I would have assumed he was still gabbing.

I'm not a devotee of commentaries as a rule, but Dern's is one of the best I've listened to...particularly due to some of the Stoney Burke anecdotes he related. (I'm working on an essay about that show...currently a work in progress.)

And yes...both Gunsmoke and Perry Mason are the reasons why TV was invented.

Rich said...

Very interesting to see Dern's attitude about television at the time. Given how many additional opportunities TV provided, apparently there were some actors who still saw it as a step down from the movies. But I guess that's understandable, given that it was a brand new medium that the studios saw as a threat.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Very interesting to see Dern's attitude about television at the time. Given how many additional opportunities TV provided, apparently there were some actors who still saw it as a step down from the movies.

I'd be doing Dern a disservice if I didn't point out that while it was a surprise to him that Davis was doing "episodic television" he was actually quite positive about the experience, pointing out that he did a slew of TV oaters at the same time he was getting his feet wet in movies. He tells an interesting anecdote about his Stoney Burke days where medical issues for a crew member resulted in the promotions for two guys working the cinematography on the show: Conrad Hall and William Fraker.

Dern also notes that two of the actors from his "generation," Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson, didn't have to do TV -- but Bruce's memory is a bit faulty on that score.

Jeff Flugel said...

This sounds like quite an episode - and what a cast! I have the two Anniversary Collection GUNSMOKE sets, so will give this a spin pronto.

I must (somewhat shamefacedly) confess to not particularly liking GUNSMOKE; I've always had a hard time connecting with the characters (partially inspired by a violent allergic reaction to Amanda Blake), though I do like Chester and Festus, and Arness' penchant for blowing away the bad guys. The more I see of the early, 30-minute B & W episodes from the first few seasons, the more I'm warming to the show, so there's hope for me yet. This one (even though it's a later color, hour-long ep. - never my favorite kind) sounds well worth watching just for the presence of Dame Bette alone.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

The more I see of the early, 30-minute B & W episodes from the first few seasons, the more I'm warming to the show, so there's hope for me yet. This one (even though it's a later color, hour-long ep. - never my favorite kind)

My favorite episodes were always the B&W ones from 1961-66...though in recent months, I have started becoming a huge fan of the early b&w half-hours. The radio version of the show is still the unbeatable, though.

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

Terrific post, Ivan, not just on Bette's GUNSMOKE guest appearance, but her work on other television series. I love the quote from Bruce Dern and was delighted to see the little boxed review from TV GUIDE (which I read regularly as a kid).

ClassicBecky said...

I too am a Gunsmoke fan, Ivan. My Grandpa was responsible for this ... he never missed an episode, and I spent a lot of time with him, so I came to love it too. The black and white ones were the best, but it was so good I liked the color ones too (unlike the Andy Griffith show -- I loved it, and when it went to color I really thought it went downhill.) Bette Davis is my pick for best actress of the 20th Century, and I don't think I ever saw this episode. She would fill the screen no matter what she played, and I'd love to see this. Really excellent article!

Unknown said...

I enjoyed your essay on "The Jailor". I would like to add this link to the Amanda Blake Forum.