Wednesday, 21 March 2012

My Living Doll Finally Comes to DVD

Most people remember Julie Newmar as Catwoman from the Sixties series Batman, but before playing what became her signature role Miss Newmar had her own series. My Living Doll ran for one season on CBS from 27 September 1964 to 8 September 1965. Since that time a few episodes have surfaced on bootleg VHS tapes, DVDs, and more recently on YouTube, even though it has not been seen on television for decades. On 20 March 2012 the show finally saw its first DVD release. My Living Doll: The Official Collection Vol. 1 collects twelve episodes of the classic series (although one is included as a bonus) and includes several bonus features.

I have already discussed the history of My Living Doll elsewhere on this blog, but for those of you who have never heard of the show I will give a brief run down on the series. My Living Doll was produced by Jack Chertok Television Productions, the same company behind the hit show My Favourite Martian from the previous season (1963-1964). The series was created by Bill Kelsay and Al Martin (who had both worked on My Favourite Martian), based on an idea suggested by Leo Guild.  It centred on a prototype robot designated AF 709, built for the United States Air Force and  in the shape of a very attractive woman (Julie Newmar). When the robot's creator, Dr. Carl Miller (Henry Beckman) found himself being transferred to Pakistan, he left the AF 709 in the care of his friend, psychologist Dr. Bob McDonald (played by movie and television star Bob Cummings). Dr. McDonald passed AF 709 off as Dr. Miller's niece Rhoda and took it upon himself to teach her to be the "perfect" woman, all the while trying to keep her true nature as a robot secret from the rest of the world.

My Living Doll debuted on CBS on Sunday, 27 September 1964, at 9:00 PM Eastern/8:00 PM Central. Unfortunately this placed it opposite NBC's Bonanza, then the #1 show on American television. Its ratings were then understandably low. In December My Living Doll was moved to Wednesday nights at 8:00 Eastern/7:00 Central. Unfortunately, this placed the show opposite another high rated Western on NBC, The Virginian. The show's ratings were probably not helped a great deal when Bob Cummings decided to leave the show. It was decided not to replace Mr. Cummings on the series, so that his sidekick, Dr. Peter Robinson  (Jack Mullaney) became Rhoda's guardian. Bob Cummings last appeared on the show on 27 January 1965. With ratings for My Living Doll extremely low, it came as no surprise that when CBS issued its tentative 1965-1966 schedule in February it did not include My Living Doll.  CBS would revise the schedule several times before it took its final form in May, but at no point did My Living Doll appear on it. Quite simply, My Living Doll was cancelled. The series would be rerun during the summer and its last episode aired on 8 September 1965.

While My Living Doll had been cancelled, it was hardly forgotten. Indeed, the mention of My Living Doll to men and even women between the ages of 52 and 60 will often elicit fond memories of the show. What is more, according to The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the phrase "does not compute" originated on My Living Doll (it was a bit of a catchphrase for Rhoda).  It would seem possible that the Nielsen ratings never truly reflected the popularity of  My Living Doll. Indeed, it seems that it is better remembered than many shows with longer runs. For those wondering how a 48 year old show that ran only one season can warrant a DVD release, that is how.

Many today would probably consider the premise of My Living Doll to be extremely sexist, but the show really does not come off as sexist at all (especially when one considers it was made in 1964). First, the whole idea of Dr. McDonald teaching Rhoda to be the "perfect woman" seems to have largely disappeared after the first episode, so that the show became much more about Dr. McDonald trying to get the incredibly intelligent but also incredibly naive and innocent Rhoda to adapt to human society. Second, while a show with Julie Newmar as an incredibly sexy robot would seem custom made for sexual innuendo, there is actually very little in the show. In fact, I dare say the concurrent Bewitched contained much more in the way of sexual innuendo (and sex in general)! Third, like the contemporaneous Bewitched and the subsequent I Dream of Jeannie, more often than not it is Rhoda who comes out on top. This gives My Living Doll a slight feminist subtext much the same as Bewitched (although as Rhoda is a robot perhaps "individualist" rather than "feminist" would be a better word in the case of My Living Doll--despite her appearance, Rhoda is essentially genderless).

As to the quality of the show itself, My Living Doll compares favourably to both My Favourite Martian and I Dream of Jeannie. In fact, the dynamic between the lead characters on My Living Doll foresees the dynamic between the lead characters on I Dream of Jeannie in the days before Roger knew Jeannie was, well, a genie. Bob is trying to get Rhoda to adjust to human society and at the same time must keep her true nature as a highly advanced robot secret. At the same time Peter does not realise Rhoda is a robot and has a crush on her, so that he is always trying to get her alone. While the debt Sidney Sheldon owed Bewitched in creating I Dream of Jeannie has often been acknowledged, one has to wonder that I Dream of Jeannie doesn't owe more to My Living Doll.

Like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie (and Three's Company, for that matter) , My Living Doll is essentially a comedy of errors. in which Rhoda's naivete about human society or her many incredible abilities (she can learn almost anything in a matter of seconds) or the very fact that she is a robot creates complications that Bob and the other characters must then seek to resolve. This makes for some very funny comedy. Indeed, much of the comedy in My Living Doll is very sophisticated, so that in the end the series was in some ways better than My Favourite Martian and I Dream of Jeannie (although not Bewitched, which was arguably one of the best comedies of the Sixties). In "The Uninvited Guest" Rhoda develops the equivalent of a computer virus after reading the works of Lewis Carroll ((it seems that Lewis Carroll's mathematically precise rhymes interefered with her programming) at the very same time a fellow scientist is visiting Dr. MacDonald to investigate materials missing from Dr. Miller's lab (in fact, the materials he used to build Rhoda...). In "Something Borrow, Something Blew (Julie Newmar's favourite episode)," Rhoda naively accepts a millionaire's marriage proposal, with complications upon complications mounting throughout the episode. In "The Love Machine" Bob uses Rhoda's computer brain to perform the equivalent of a computer dating service, finding the perfect match for Peter from the various female employees at the Air Force base. Unfortunately, Bob's coaching the shy and awkward Peter in the matters of the opposite sex tends to complicate things. In "The Witness" Peter hits Bob's car and is told by his insurance company that he must sue Bob to prove it was not his fault or lose his insurance. Unfortunately, Rhoda's flawless memory, her inability to lie, and her ignorance about the proper behaviour expected of humans in a courtroom tends to complicate matters. Over all the quality of writing on My Living Doll was very high. This should come as no surprise, as many of the writers on My Living Doll also wrote for Bewtiched, Gilligan's Island, and fellow Jack Chertok production My Favourite Martian.

Not only did My Living Doll  have good writing, it also benefited from a sterling cast. Although the producers thought Bob Cummings was miscast (it was CBS who insisted upon his casting--the producers wanted Efrem Zimbalist Jr. or a young DJ named Bob Crane, later of Hogan's Heroes), he actually does very well as Dr. Bob MacDonald. His easy going charm suits the character quite well and his comic timing is impeccable, as might be expected of an actor with a good deal of experience in film and television. Doris Dowling was also very good as Dr. MacDonald's sister Irene (this being 1964, Dr. MacDonald moved his sister in with him and Rhoda, it being unseemly for a bachelor to be living with a robot who looks like a young woman), who is clueless as to Rhoda's true nature. Jack Mullaney is great as Peter, the shy and awkward physicist who likes to think he is a great ladies man. Of the male leads Mr. Mullaney was actually the funnier of the two, so that Bob Cummings is more often than not playing his straight man. Of course, the star of the show beyond a doubt was Julie Newmar. Miss Newmar's performance as Rhoda could well be one of the greatest in the history of sitcoms. As a robot Rhoda has no emotions and is totally clueless as to most aspects of human society, yet Miss Newmar endowed her with a warmth and innocence all her own. She was very convincing as a robot with no real knowledge of human behaviour. There can be no doubt that much of this was due to her background as a dancer. Having trained in dance, Julie Newmar was likely more aware of her movements than most performers, to the point that she can move like something that is not quite human (she also put this skill to use as Catwoman on Batman, where her movements were very feline). What is more, in My Living Doll Miss Newmar has an incredible vocal and emotional range rarely seen in other actresses in sitcoms of the time. A running joke on the show is that someone would say something to Rhoda, whereby she would mimic it right back at them right down to the tone of voice. If one needs no further proof of Miss Newmar's talents, one need only look at the episode "Something Borrowed, Something Blew," in which she goes from a New England lockjaw to a Southern "hillbilly" accent in a matter of seconds! Given the writing and the cast on My Living Doll, it is sad that the show lasted only one season. With a new male lead, I rather suspect the show could have lasted several seasons as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie did.

As to the DVD presentation of My Living Doll: The Official Collection Vol. 1, it is one of the best I have ever seen for a TV series (especially one that only lasted one season). The DVD set features a lot of bonus features, including:  a documentary retrospective on the series featuring Julie Newmar, producer Howard Leeds, and guest star Jackie Jospeph; an interview with Julie Newmar from 1964 from Lucille Ball's radio talk show Let's Talk to Lucy; the notorious alternate opening to My Living Doll (in which Miss Newmar was only wearing a teddy); a soundtrack of the music from the series; an episode of The Bob Cummings Show; vintage commercials that actually aired on the series (one episode is even presented with the commercials intact); and a photo gallery. In fact, I can only think of two bonus features that they could have included. First, it would have been nice if on at least one of the episodes they had included an audio commentary from Miss Newmar. Second, it would have been nice if they had included a booklet detailing the history of the series, as many DVD sets of television series do. In the end, however, even without audio commentaries or a booklet discussing the history of the series, they did an impressive job with the bonus features, which are many more than series that lasted longer and in some cases series that are still on the air!

In the end I only have one real complaint with My Living Doll: The Official Collection Vol. 1. The cover is only glued loosely at the long ends of the case, so that it could quite easily get torn. For those of us who wish to keep their DVD case covers in pristine condition, this is a major concern. I do hope that when and if they reissue My Living Doll: The Official Collection Vol. 1 that they take greater care with the cover!

In the end I would say My Living Doll: The Official Collection Vol. 1 would be a great buy for anyone who loves vintage television, who loves the fantasy sitcoms of the Sixties, or who loves Julie Newmar. It is a very well done and very funny sitcom that was very original for its time and still holds up very well. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of the series actually did survive, so I am looking forward to the release of ;My Living Doll: The Official Collection Vol. 2!

8 comments:

Raquelle said...

I'm really looking forward to watching this! I added it to my ClassicFlix queue when the release was announced. Thanks for all the info! :-)

Terence Towles Canote said...

Quelle, I think you'll really enjoy it. My Living Doll compares quite well with the other fantasy sitcoms of the era!

Hal said...

I suspect most reviewers never got past the pilot, which happens quite often. Sad for those shows that took a few episodes to hit their stride.

Cummings' LOVE THAT BOB was loaded with innuendo, so I suspect that most reviewers just saw the "perfect female" pilot ep., remembered Cummings' other show, and ran with it. What I've seen of MY LIVING DOLL so far isn't so terrible, but I do think Cummings was too old for the part by 1964 even if he did look good for his age.

VP81955 said...

An excellent, in-depth review.

I've met and interviewed Julie -- a very bright and charming lady -- and I've long thought that her considerable physical attributes in some ways worked against her. It's no secret that one of Newmar's childhood idols was Rita Hayworth, a wonderfully sensual dancer, but it may surprise some to learn that her other idol was Carole Lombard. Julie has a splendid comedic sense, which unfortunately she rarely had a chance to fully display -- it was a time when producers and casting directors were more concerned with measurements than talent -- so I'm not surprised she excels on "My Living Doll," and I'm delighted most of the episodes are available.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Hal, the few reviews from 1964 I have read didn't even acknowledge that the premise as presented in the pilot was sexist, which really isn't surprising. It was 1964, a time when feminism was just getting off the ground and most TV critics were men. I think even if My Living Doll had contained the amount of innuendo that The Bob Cummings Show (AKA Love That Bob), which was a LOT, they wouldn't have noticed! I do have to agree that a younger actor would have been better in the part. Personally, I think the show would have been much better if CBS had let the producers go with Bob Crane. Still, I think Mr. Cummings worked well enough for the show.

VP81955, it really doesn't surprise me that Miss Newmar idolised Carole Lombard. Both women were drop dead gorgeous and both were fantastic when it came to comedy. It is really a shame that My Living Doll didn't last longer or that she could not have gotten a part in another sitcom or comedy movies!

Julie Newmar said...

No one has seen or understood "Living Doll" as accurately as you have.

You completely got it!
Every observation you made was faultless.
To have been appreciated by you made my efforts worth it.

With love and admiration,
Julie Newmar

Julie Newmar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Terence Towles Canote said...

Thank you so much, Miss Newmar! That is the best compliment a TV historian could ever receive. :-)