Friday, February 21, 2020

A Brief History of the Fantastic Comedies of the Sixties Part One

When people think of the American situation comedies on television in the Sixties, the many fantastic comedies are apt to come to mind. These were television shows, such as My Favourite Martian, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie, that blended elements of fantasy with situation comedy. While there would be fantastic sitcoms before and afterwards, the period of 1963 to 1967 may well have been the Golden Age of the genre on American television, with 15 different fantasy comedies debuting in those years. Some of those comedies, such as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, would prove to be among the most successful of the decade. Some of them are still airing in syndication and are widely available on streaming platforms to this day.

Of course, fantasy was blended with comedy well before television was even invented. Fantastic comedies may well have existed even before the invention of writing, with storytellers weaving tales filled with both humour and fantasy around campfires.  Elements of fantastic comedy may be found in the plays of Aristophanes, Pseudo-Lucian's The Ass, and even various plays of William Shakespeare. François Rabelais combined fantasy and comedy with Gargantua and Pantagruel. Jonathan Swift blended comedy with satire in Gulliver's Travels. Voltaire combined comedy with what would later be called science fiction in Micromégas and with fantasy in "Plato's Dream."

It was in the 19th Century that fantastic comedy really began to coalesce as a subgenre. The pioneer in the subgenre was Thomas Anstey Guthrie, who wrote under the pen name "F. Anstey." F. Anstey wrote what Farah Mendlesohn classified in her book Rhetoric of Fantasy as "intrusive fantasy," in which fantastic elements intrude upon an otherwise realistic milieu. His very first book, Vice Versa, in which a father is substituted for his son, pioneered the body switch comedy. F. Anstey also pioneered the trope of an individual's life being turned upside down by a supernatural other. Over sixty years before Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie, his novel The Brass Bottle centred upon a man whose life is turned upside down after he releases a djinn from a bottle. F. Anstey's novels always had a Victorian setting into which fantastic elements would be introduced, much as the fantastic sitcoms of the Sixties introduced Martians, witches, and genies into modern day America. F. Anstey's works would prove to be very popular, with his novels Vice Versa, The Tinted Venus, and The Brass Bottle being adapted as films multiple times.

Other authors, some of them quite noted, would follow F. Anstey into the field of fantastic comedy. Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost subverted the typical ghost story by treating it with humour. Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court blended time travel with Arthurian legend. Both would be adapted as motion pictures multiple times.

Aside from F. Anstey, perhaps no other author would have as much impact on the fantastic sitcoms of the Sixties as Thorne Smith. Thorne Smith often combined fantasy with comedy in his novels, the best known of which is Topper. In Topper a staid banker, Cosmo Topper, finds himself haunted by a couple of fun-loving ghosts, Marion and George Kerby, who take it upon themselves to make Cosmo less of a stick in the mud. Thorne Smith would follow Topper up with a sequel, Topper Takes a Trip. Among his other works were The Night Life of the Gods, in which statues of the Roman gods in the Metropolitan Museum of Art are brought to life, Turnabout, in which a husband and wife switch bodies, and the unfinished novel The Passionate Witch, in which a man finds himself married to a witch. Like F. Anstey's novels, Thorne Smith's novels would also be made into movies, including Night Life of the Gods (1935), Topper (1937) and Topper Takes a Trip (1939), Turnabout (1940), and I Married a Witch (1942--based on The Passionate Witch).

Given the rise of the subgenre of fantastic comedy in literature, it would come as no surprise that fantastic comedy would be a cinematic subgenre was well. F. Anstey's The Brass Bottle would be adapted to film twice in the Silent Era, once in 1914 and again in 1923. René Clair's 1924 movie Paris Qui Dort centred on a scientist who develops a ray that freezes people into place.  With the advent of talkies, fantastic comedy movies became much more common. The Thirties saw the release of such fantastic comedy movies as Turn Back the Clock (1933), The Ghost Goes West (1935), Topper (1937), and The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1937).

It would be the release of Here Comes Mr. Jordan in 1941 that would launch an entire cycle of fantastic comedy films that would last throughout the decade. In Here Comes Mr. Jordan a mistake occurs whereby a pilot dies too soon, after which the angel Mr. Jordan must correct the mistake. The success of Mr. Jordan would lead to other  films featuring guardian angels in the Forties, including Heaven Can Wait (1943), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947), and For Heaven's Sake (1950). Here Comes Mr .Jordan would also lead to other fantastic comedy movies in the Forties. The title of I Married a Witch (1942) pretty much explains the film. Angel on My Shoulder (1946) centred not on angels, but on the forces of Hell instead. The Abbot and Costello movie The Time of Their Lives (1946) dealt with ghosts. Down to Earth (1947), which was a bit of a sequel to Here Comes Mr. Jordan, centred on the muse Terpsichore (played by Rita Hayworth).  The Luck of the Irish (1948) featured a leprechaun. Both Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948) and Miranda (1948) centred on mermaids. Most of the fantastic comedy movies of the Forties were intrusive fantasies in which an ordinary person's life is turned upside down by some supernatural other (an angel, a witch, a Muse, and so on). This would also be the format that the majority of fantastic comedy sitcoms that aired on American television in the Sixties.

Fantastic comedy movies would continue to be made into the Fifties, although in fewer numbers than they had been in the Forties. Among the classic fantastic comedy films of the Fifties were Angels in the Outfield (1951), Kismet (1955), Damn Yankees (1958), and Bell, Book and Candle (1958). Despite how common fantastic comedy movies were in both the Forties and Fifties, on television there would be few antecedents on television to the Sixties' fantastic sitcoms in the Fifties. The very first was Topper, based on Thorne Smith's novels Topper and Topper Takes a Trip, and heavily influenced by the movies also based on the novels.

Topper starred Leo G. Carroll as Cosmo Topper, who finds his life turned upside down after he buys the estate of the late George and Marion Kerby (played by real life married couple Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffreys). Unfortunately for Topper, the house is still haunted by the Kerbys, as well as their St. Bernard Neil. Worse yet for Topper, while he is a somewhat stodgy bank president, the Kerbys are a fun loving couple who enjoy drinking. As in the books and the movies, the Kerbys took it upon themselves to loosen Topper up. Topper debuted on CBS on October 9 1953 and ran for two seasons. When it ended its run it was not due to low ratings, but because the sponsor, Camel cigarettes, would not pay for a third season. It proved to be very popular rerun in syndication, running well into the Sixties. It was Topper that would set the pace for all sitcoms in which a mere mortal finds his or her life turned upside down by a supernatural other. The plots of most Topper episodes involved the Kerbys creating some sort of problem for Topper, not unlike Uncle Martin would later do for Tim O'Hara on My Favourite Martian or Samantha's relatives would later do for Darrin on Bewitched.

Following Topper there would be very little in the way of fantastic comedy on television for the remainder of the Fifties. That is not to say that fantastic comedy would be entirely absent from the small screen during the decade. A significant teleplay in the history of fantasy comedies aired on May 8 1955 on Goodyear Television Playhouse. "Visit to a Small Planet" was written by Gore Vidal and starred Cyril Ritchard as an alien named Kreton from an unnamed planet. "Visit to a Small Planet" proved popular enough to be later adapted as a Broadway play and then as a 1960 movie starring Jerry Lewis. It was also a possible inspiration for the Sixties Fantastic sitcom My Favourite Martian. By coincidence, among the cast of the original Goodyear Television Playhouse episode was Dick York, who would later make an impact in the Sixties fantastic sitcom Bewitched.

It was the following autumn, on October 5 1955, that a sitcom debuted that bordered on being a fantastic comedy. The People's Choice starred Jackie Cooper as ornithologist, city councilman, and later attorney Socrates "Sock" Miller. What made The People's Choice very nearly a fantastic sitcom was his basset hound Cleo, whose thoughts on what was going around her were conveyed by the voice of actress Mary Jane Croft (not unlike the baby in the movie Look Who's Talking). The People's Choice proved moderately successful, running three seasons.

Following The People's Choice most of the fantastic comedy on American television in the Fifties would be on two anthology shows, the first of which was Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the second of which would be The Twilight Zone (more on it later). During the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents there aired an episode that resembled the fantastic sitcoms of the Sixties a good deal. "Whodunit" starred John Williams as mystery writer Alexander Penn Arlington, who finds himself in Heaven without knowing who had murdered him. Arlington is then sent back to Earth to solve his own murder. "Whodunit" would not be the only fantastic comedy episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as it would be followed by others, such as "Design for Loving" in the fourth season and  "The Doubtful Doctor" in the sixth season.

While fantastic comedies were rare on the more mainstream anthologies, there were a few. Among them was "The Star Wagon," which aired on Playhouse 90 on January 24 1957. "The Star Wagon" centred on an inventor who develops a time machine.

It was on May 10 1957 that a show debuted that started out as a borderline fantastic comedy and in the end became a more mainstream sitcom. Date with the Angels was conceived by Betty White and producer Don Fedderson (later known for My Three Sons) as a vehicle for Miss White. The two bought the television rights to the 1945 Elmer Rice play Dream Girl, which was later adapted as the 1948 film starring Betty Hutton and still later as a 1955 episode of Hallmark Hall of Fame. The play centred on a young woman and bookstore manager who regularly has Walter Mitty-style fantasies. Date with the Angels centred on newlywed Vicki Angel (played by Betty White) and her husband Gus Angel (played by Bill Williams), who was an insurance salesman. As originally conceived, Vicki would regularly launch into daydreams, which would occupy the better part of episodes. This gave it more in common with the fantastic comedies of the Sixties than its fellow sitcoms of the Fifties.

Unfortunately, the premise of Date with the Angels would be changed due to pressure from the show's sponsor, Plymouth. According to Miss White, Plymouth maintained that "fantasy never works with an audience." The fantasy sequences were then phased out and Date with the Angels became a more mainstream sitcom, albeit one with a particularly strong cast. Besides Betty White, the cast included Richard Deacon, Burt Mustin, and Nancy Culp. Sadly, without the fantasy sequences, Date with the Angels would only last a season and a half.

As the Fifties were becoming the Sixties, a show would debut that would prove Plymouth's assertion that "fantasy never works with an audience" wrong. The Twilight Zone was created by acclaimed writer Rod Serling and was a fantasy anthology show that also occasionally delved into science fiction, horror, and even comedy. In the course of its five year run, The Twilight Zone would air several comedic episodes. Among the most significant was "Mr. Bevis," which aired during the first season. "Mr. Bevis" had originated as a pilot script for a TV series meant to star Burgess Meredith. When Mr. Meredith turned the role down, Rod Serling simply turned the pilot into a Twilight Zone episode. The episode centred on James B. W. Bevis (played by Orson Bean), a kind hearted but bumbling fellow. Mr. Bevis's life is turned upside down by his guardian angel named J. Hardy Hempstead (played by Henry Jones). "Mr. Bevis" is generally considered one of the poorer episodes of The Twilight Zone, which may be why Burgess Meredith turned the pilot down. Regardless of its quality, the premise of the pilot shows that Rod Serling was a little bit ahead of his time. In only a few years there would be numerous comedies in which an ordinary mortal's life is complicated by a supernatural being.

Rod Serling did not give up on the concept of angels and so he created another pilot involving one that would also become a Twilight Zone episode. "Cavender is Coming" centred on the guardian angel of the title (played by Jesse White), who is assigned to help Agnes Grep (played by Carol Burnett). "Cavender is Coming" was the pilot for a series to be called The Side of the Angels. Unlike "Mr. Bevis," The Side of the Angels would have seen Cavender helping a different mortal each week. Despite this, the episode is virtually a remake of "Mr. Bevis." Like "Mr. Bevis," "Cavender is Coming" is considered one of the poorer episodes of The Twilight Zone. "Cavender is Coming" aired during the third season of The Twilight Zone on May 25 1962, only shortly before American television would be overtake by fantasy comedies. The Twilight Zone also aired several fantastic comedy episodes, including "Penny for Your Thoughts", "A World of His Own", "Once Upon a Time","Mr. Dingle, The Strong."

At the end of the Fifties and the start of the Sixties Thriller would follow Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone in featuring a few fantastic comedy episodes. Thriller began as a straightforward suspense anthology and over time evolved into a horror anthology. "Masquerade" was a comedic take on the "dark, scary house" subgenre, with Tom Poston and Elizabeth Montgomery playing a young couple. "The Remarkable Mrs. Hawk" features Jo Van Fleet as the title character, who seems to be at the centre of several disappearances of drifters passing throughout the county. "Cousin Tundifer" involved a house belonging to a killer that featured, among other things, a room that bridges both space and time. As might be expected, the comedic episodes of Thriller tended to be horror comedies.

The same season that Thriller debuted, a borderline fantasy comedy debuted that summer. The premise of Happy resembled that of The People's Choice, only instead of a talking basset hound it featured a talking baby. Happy was Christopher Hapgood Day, who would comment on the various proceedings around him. Like Cleo on The People's Choice, the other characters could not hear Happy's thoughts, only the audience.  Happy did not prove to be particularly successful. Debuting on June 8 1960, it ended its run on April 7 1961.

It was on the eve of the explosion of fantastic comedies in the Sixties that a fantastic comedy aired as an episode of Alcoa Premiere on November 1 1962. "Mr. Lucifer" starred Fred Astaire as the Devil himself, Mr. Lucifer, who is working as a Madison Avenue executive. In the episode Mr. Lucifer sets out to corrupt a well-adjusted, happily married architect named Tom Logan (played by Frank Aletter). Mr. Lucifer utilised the sort of special effects that would later become common on such shows as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. It also featured two actors who would later star in fantastic comedies of the Sixties. Elizabeth Montgomery played Mr. Lucifer's servant Iris Hecate. Of course, she would become famous as Samantha on Bewitched. Frank Aletter would later star on the fantasy sitcom It's About Time.

While the Fifties would see very little in the way of fantastic comedy, the Sixties would see a boom in fantastic sitcoms that remains unmatched to this day. And many of those fantastic sitcoms, such as Bewitched, The Addams Family, and I Dream of Jeannie that are still aired in reruns to this day.

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