Saturday, 26 August 2006

Two Shows from 1964

In 1964 I was only a year old, so I don't have any memory of that year. One thing I do know from my study of television history, however, is that the 1964-1965 season was a good one for TV series. That season saw the debut of such classics as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Bewitched, The Addams Family, and Gilligan's Island. Very, very recently I had the opportunity to watch two shows that debuted that season. One of those lasted several years and I remember fondly from my childhood. The other lasted only one season and I had never seen before.

When I was in kindergarten and first grade, the two most popular shows among us boys were the recently cancelled Batman and the then ongoing Daniel Boone. Looking back, I suppose that Daniel Boone was Twentieth Century Fox's attempt (and a successful one at that) to capitalise on the popularity of Disney's phenomenal Davy Crockett episodes of Disneyland. The show featured Fess Parker (who had also played Crocektt) as the legendary woodsman, who had settled in Boonesborough in the wilds of Ken-tuck-E about the time of the American War for Independence. The series featured Boone's family--his wife Rebecca (Patricia Blair), his daugher Jemima (Veronica Cartwright), and his son Israel (Darby Hinton). For the first four years of the series, Boone was often accompanied by his Cherokee friend Mingo (Ed Ames). During its initial run Daniel Boone was very successful. For two years it ranked in the top twenty five shows according to the Nielsen ratings. Ultimately, it ran six years on NBC. And for several years in the Seventies it seemed to have had a fairly successful syndication run. It ran on several local TV stations. I remember myself that KOMU in Columbia, MO showed it on weekdays at 4:00 PM CST (perfect for kids who had just gotten out of school). Since that time it all but disappeared from American airwaves. It would pop up sporadically on TV schedules from time to time. I know that Pax showed it for a short time. And a few episodes were released on video some years go. But for the most part Daniel Boone has remained unseen for much of the Eighties, Nineties, and Naughts.

Fornutately, TV Land is showing a Daniel Boone marathon this weekend and will show it weekdays at 2:00 PM CDT starting this coming Monday. This has given me an opportunity to see a show from my childhood which I probably have not seen for nearly 34 years. To some degree Daniel Boone is what I expected it to be. The show is hardly historically accurate. For instance, although it is set during the years of the American War for Independence, I know of one episode that features an appearance by President George Washington! Too, it must be pointed out that Daniel Boone most assuredly did not wear a coonskin cap, as testified by his son Nathan in an interview. And it is not always accurate with regards to the portrayal of Native American cultures either. Mingo dresses like no Cherokee I have ever seen. And in a first season episode the Shawnee are actually portrayed as living in tipis! It must also be pointed out that during the first season it is clear in some episodes that some scenes were shot on a soundstage.

All of this having been said, I am not sure any of it matters. The Westerns which aired during the same era as Daniel Boone were well known for altering history (Bonanza was particularly guilty of this). And while I suppose that as someone who is part Cherokee I should be offended by the inaccuracies in the portrayal of Native cultures, I cannot say I am. This is primarily because Daniel Boone always portrayed Native Americans with respect, despite whatever inaccuracies in clothing or lodgings might occur on the series. Indeed, Mingo (who was easily the most popular character on the show) is portrayed as a reasonable, intelligent human being who speaks the English language (and several others as well) better than many of the settlers. He is not a stereotype by any stretch of the imagination! As to the shooting on soundstages that sometimes occurred in early episodes, I must point out that this was common practice on shows in the Sixties (just watch several episodes of Bonanza some time and you'll see what I mean).

The fact is that in seeing Daniel Boone for the first time in three decades I was pleasantly surprised. Daniel Boone was a very well done series. Much of this is due to the performances. Fess Parker does quite well as Boone, who, despite some similarities, is a totally different character from Davy Crockett (Boone is less the adventurer and more the family man). Ed Ames gives perhaps most consistent performances of the cast, endowing Mingo with a good sense of humour and remarkable wit. And Dal McKennon is perhaps the funniest character on the show as tavern keeper Cincinnatus. The scripts are well written, with well developed characters and little in the way of cliches. What is more, Daniel Boone was a very flexible TV show with regards to the different sorts of episodes that were written for it. The series was capable of serious drama, such as the first season episiode "The Returning," in which an old friend of Daniel's is accused of murdering a group of Cherokee. At the same time, however, it could be a purely action adventure show, such as the episode "The Returning," in which Daniel's wife is kidnapped. And the show was further capable of the occasional comedy episode (and what's more, do it well), such as the episode "The Tortoise and Hare," which centred on Boonesborough's annual foot race.

There are those times when one watches a show he or she loved from childhood, only to discover that it was truly dreadful. Fortunately, Daniel Boone is not one of these shows. While it has its occasional flaws, it is a truly well done and entertaining show. And I can easily see why five and six year old boys would have absolutely loved the series--there is plenty of action and adventure to be had for all.

The other show from 1964 which I had the opportunity to see was My Living Doll. For those of you who have never heard of the series, My Living Doll was a sitcom featuring Bob Cummings as psychiatrist Dr. Robert MacDonald. MacDonald finds himself in the predicament of having to care for a robot, designated AF 709, developed by his friend Dr. Carl Miller (Henry Beckman) when Miller must go to Pakistan on government business. Unfortunately for MacDonald, AF 709 looks exactly like Julie Newmar (who played her, of course). Furthermore, AF 709 is top secret, so MacDonald must take pains to keep anyone from learning that AF 709 is indeed a very advanced robot. MacDonald named AF 709 "Rhoda" and passed her off as Dr. Miller's niece, who was staying with him. He also "hired" her as his secretary at work (a job for which she is perfectly suited--she can type hundreds of words a minute and her memory banks hold thousands of bits of information). MacDonald also decided to teach Rhoda how to be the "perfect" woman--one who does what she is told to. In this final task MacDonald appears to have never quite succeeded, as Rhoda seems to have somewhat a mind of her own...

Produced by Jack Chertok (who also produced the classic My Favorite Martian), My Living Doll debuted on CBS on Sunday night, September 24, 1964. It had the misfortune of airing opposite Bonanza (then the number one show on American television) on NBC, and as a result it performed poorly in the ratings. CBS moved the series to Wednesday night in December. Unfortunately, this placed this series against The Virginian on NBC and The Patty Duke Show on ABC. Its ratings did not improve. To make matters worse, there was also strife on the set. Julie Newmar and Bob Cummings did not get along, with Cummings eventually walking off the set with five episodes left to air. Ultimately, My Living Doll would be cancelled after one season. This having been said, it seems possible that its ratings did not truly reflect its popularity. My Living Doll was popular enough that TV Guide did an article on the series and even featured Julie Newmar on its cover. As further proof of the show's popularity, The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang traces the origins of the phrase "does not compute (one of the show's catchphrases)," back to My Living Doll. As further proof, even though it only lasted a season, My Living Doll is still remembered by many to this day--a rarity for a show that not only ran but one season, but was never reran in syndication!

Anyhow, like most of my generation I had never seen an episode of My Living Doll. For a long time the entire run of the series was feared lost. Since that time a few episodes had surfaced. Now it appears that even more episodes of the series have been found, so that the show is now poised for an official release on DVD. At any rate, I had the opportunity to finally see six episodes of My Living Doll. And I must say that I was pleasantly surprised.

Okay, the premise of the series would certainly be considered sexist by today's standards, but then I presume most people would realise that the show was made in 1964 when feminism was just getting off the ground. Keeping that in mind, My Living Doll is actually a fairly entertaining series. In all I would say that in its quality it is on par with Chertok's more famous series, My Favourite Martian. In fact, the episodes which I saw often included some very sophisticated and very funny bits of comedy. In "The Uninvited Guest" Rhoda develops the equivalent of a modern day computer virus after reading Alice in Wonderland (it seems that Lewis Carroll's mathematically precise rhymes interefered with her programming). In "Beauty Contest," Dr. MacDonald uses a televison remote control to interfere with Rhoda during the talent portion of a beauty contest in which his sister (who did not know Rhoda was a robot) entered her (MacDonald didn't want Rhoda to win for fear of her secret being discovered). The entire premise of "Something Borrowed" is hilarious--naive Rhoda accepts a marriage proposal from a many times married (and many times divorced) millionaire! Of course, it should be no surprise that the writing on the series would be sterling--it was written by individuals who also worked on such series as Bewitched, Gilligan's Island, and, of course, My Favourite Martian.

I must also point out that My Living Doll also benefited from a solid cast. Although he didn't get along with Julie Newmar (or anyone else, for that matter), Bob Cummings did well as Dr. MacDonald. His easy going charm suited the character quite well. Doris Dowling did very well as MacDonald's sister Irene, who was absolutely clueless about Rhoda's true nature. By far the most impressive performance is given by Julie Nemar as Rhoda. Never mind that Newmar just oozes sex appeal even when she is standing still, she can play a robot very convincingly. Much of this is no doubt due to Newmar's background as a dancer. Being much more aware of her movements than an actor without a background in dance, she could easily move like something not quite human (she put this skill to good use as The Catwoman on Batman as well, where she moved like, well, a cat...). Newmar also has a much better vocal and emotional range than many actresses of her time or any other. In the episode "Something Borrowed" she went from a New England lockjaw to a Southern "hillbilly" accent without breaking a sweat! I have to say that it is a shame CBS cancelled My Living Doll even though it was clear Cummings would no longer be a part of the series--it could have easily continued without him as long as Newmar played Rhoda!

To sum things up, My Living Doll compares favourably to other series of its sort that aired during the same era. When it is officially released on DVD, I would fully recommend anyone buying it, particularly those who love the imaginative comedies of the Sixties.

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