Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Godspeed Gene Reynolds

Gene Reynolds, the actor, director, and producer who developed M*A*S*H for television with Larry Gelbart and co-created the TV show Lou Grant with James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, died February 3 2020 at the age of 96.

Gene Reynolds was born Eugene Reynolds Blumenthal in Cleveland, Ohio on April 4 1923. He spent much of his childhood in Detroit. In 1934 his family moved to Los Angeles. As a boy he studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. He made his film debut in the Our Gang short "Washee Ironee" in 1934. That same year he made his feature film debut in Babes in Toyland (1934). During the Thirties he appeared in such films as The Calling of Dan Matthews (1935), Sins of Man (1936), Thank You, Jeeves! (1936), The Californian (1937), Madame X (1937), Thunder Trail (1937), In Old Chicago (1938), Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), The Crowd Roars (1938), Boys Town (1938), The Spirit of Culver (1939), The Flying Dutchman (1939), They Shall Have Music (1939), Bad Little Angel (1939), Edison, the Man (1940), The Mortal Storm (1940), Gallant Sons (1940), and Santa Fe Trail (1940).

During World War II Gene Reynolds served in the United States Navy. During the Forties he appeared in the films Andy Hardy's Private Secretary (1941), The Penalty (1941), Adventure in Washington (1941), Junior G-Men of the Air (1942), The Tuttles of Tahiti (1942), Eagle Squardron (1942), Jungle Patrol (1948), The Big Cat (1949), and Slatterly's Hurricane (1949). He made his television debut in 1949 in an episode of Your Showtime. He also guest starred on an episode of The Lone Ranger.

It was in the Fifties that Gene Reynolds broke into television writing and directing. He created the classic Western Tales of Wells Fargo with Frank Gruber and James Brooks. He directed episodes of the TV shows Tales of Wells Fargo, Hennesey, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Hot Off the Wire, Peter Gunn, and Leave It to Beaver. Mr. Reynolds continued acting, appearing in the movies 99 River Street (1953), Prisoner of War (1954), Down Three Dark Streets (1954), The Country Girl (1954), The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), The McConnell Story (1955), Diane (1956), and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956). He guest starred on such TV shows as Armstrong Circle Theatre, Danger, Dragnet, I Led 3 Lives, General Electric Theatre, The Ford Television Theatre, Mr. District Attorney, The Man Behind the Badge, Public Defender, Annie Oakley, Lux Video Theatre, The Man with a Camera, You Are There, Damon Runyon Theatre, Waterfront, Studio 57, Highway Patrol, Crossroads, Whirlybirds, I Love Lucy, Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre, Climax!, and Hennesey.

In the Sixties Gene Reynolds directed episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, 77 Sunset Strip, Margie, Father of the Bride, The Farmer's Daughter, My Three Sons, The Cara Williams Show, The Donna Reed Show, Many Happy Returns, Wendy and Me, Mister Roberts, Gidget, Hank, The Munsters, F Troop, Run Buddy Run, Love on a Rooftop, Occasional Wife, Captain Nice, The Second Hundred Years, Hogan's Heroes, N.Y.P.D, Mannix, The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, and Room 222. He was a producer on Room 222. He made his last appearance as an actor in an episode of Captain Nice.

In the Seventies Mr. Reynolds co-created the shows M*A*S*H (with Larry Gelbart), Roll Out (with Larry Gelbart), Karen (with Larry Gelbart and Carl Kleinschmitt), and Lou Grant (with James L. Brooks and Allan Burns). He directed episodes of Room 222, Karen, M*A*S*H, The Fitzpatricks, and Lou Grant. He was a producer on M*A*S*H, Anna and the King, Roll Out, and Lou Grant.

In the Eighties Gene Reynolds wrote the pilot for the short-lived sitcom Mr. President. He directed episodes of The Duck Factory, Hometown, Mr. President, Heartbeat, Studio 5-B, A Fine Romance, In the Heat of the Night, and Life Goes On. He served as an executive producer on Blossom. In the Nineties he directed episodes of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Monty, Christy, Promised Land, and Touched by An Angel.

There can be no doubt that Gene Reynolds left an indelible mark on American television. As a co-creator he was responsible for such classics as Tales of Wells Fargo, M*A*S*H, and Lou Grant. He directed hundreds of hours of classic television, including such shows as My Three Sons, F Troop, Hogan's Heroes, Room 222, M*A*S*H, and Lou Grant. Of the many shows he directed, he directed some of their best episodes, including the Andy Griffith Show episode "Alcohol and Old Lace," the F Troop episode "The Courtship of Wrangler Jane," the M*A*S*H episode "Bug Out." and the Lou Grant episode "Influence." He was nominated for twenty-four Emmy Awards and won six.  Gene Reynolds was a truly great television director and co-creator of some of the greatest television shows of all time.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Super Bowl Commercials 2020

I did not watch the Super Bowl again this year. I know that many of my fellow Missourians will protest, "But the Chiefs were in the Super Bowl!" While I think it is nice for my friends who are fans of the team that the Chiefs were not only in the Super Bowl, but won the Super Bowl, I have never been a Kansas City Chiefs fan myself. Indeed, until St. Louis gets another NFL team, I doubt I will ever watch another Super Bowl in my life. Of course, while I don't watch the Super Bowl, I do make a point of watching the commercials, which to me are more important than the game in most years.

Sadly, this year's batch of Super Bowl commercials weren't particularly impressive. Oh, there were very few commercials that were really bad, but there were also very few that were really good either. One way in which this year's batch of Super Bowl ads differed from previous years is that there really weren't any overarching themes this year. Several contain movie references, but that seems to be par for the course in most Super Bowls. Here are my favourite ads to air this year in the Super Bowl.

Jeep "Groundhog Day"

Not only is this my favourite Super Bowl commercial this year, but it is also one of my all time favourite Super Bowl commercials. In "Groundhog Day" Bill Murray once more finds himself reliving Groundhog Day over and over again with one major difference--the addition of a Jeep Rubicon. What makes this commercial so good is that it is not only very funny, but it respects the classic Groundhog Day (1993). If I might add one more thing, I have to say that I appreciate that the spot actually aired on Groundhog Day!

Mountain Dew Zero "As Good as the Original"

Of course, Jeep's "Groundhog Day" spot was not the only commercial to reference a classic film. Mountain Dew Zero's "As Good as the Original" references The Shining (1980), with Bryan Cranston in the role of Jack (as well as two other surprise roles at the end). While not as good as "Groundhog Day," "As Good as the Original" is very funny, and Bryan Cranston does a great job as Jack Torrance.

Walmart "Famous Visitors 6.0"

In "Famous Visitors 6.0," Walmart doesn't just reference one movie, but a whole slough of films (and one classic TV show), including Star Trek, Flash Gordon (1980), Toy Story (1995), Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989), Mars Attacks! (1996), Men in Black (1997), and Star Wars (1977). My only criticism of the spot is that C-3PO's voice sounds a bit off, as if Anthony Daniels wasn't the one providing his voice. Anyhow, I suspect many sci-fi fans will enjoy the spot.

Rocket Mortgage "Jason Momoa"

Of course, not every Super Bowl commercial referenced movies. Some used celebrities instead. One of the things I love about actor Jason Momoa is that he isn't afraid to make fun of himself. It then comes as no surprise that he agreed to appear in this commercial then.

Doritos "The Cool Ranch"

Okay, the genre of country rap basically combines my two least favourite music genres. For that reason, I don't particularly care for the song "Old Town Road." That having been said, I really liked this spot in which Sam Elliott has a dance showdown with Li'l Nas X, particularly given the ad visually references Spaghetti Westerns.

Squarespace "Winona in Winona"

This commercial doesn't seem to have made many best lists, but it is one of my favourites. I guess one has to have a certain sense of humour to appreciate Winona Ryder creating a website while in Winona, Minnesota (which, believe it or not, is where she was born). I also appreciate the spot's Fargo type vibe (despite its title, the majority of the film is set in, well, Minnesota). Also, I appreciate that Winona is still as adorable as ever.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Maverick: "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres"

James Garner and Jack Kelly as Bret and Bart
James Garner would be one of the few television stars to achieve success as a movie star, appearing in such films as Boys' Night Out (1962), The Great Escape (1963), The Thrill of It All (1963), and Marlowe (1969). Despite this, he may well be best remembered for the television role that made him a star to begin with, that of Bret Maverick on the TV show Maverick. Maverick was a sharp break from previous TV Westerns that centred on stalwart lawmen and drifters. Instead Maverick centred on members of the Maverick family (originally James Garner as Bret Maverick and Jack Kelly as his brother Bart Maverick), professional gamblers who preferred to get out of situations using their wits rather than using their guns or fists. Although the Mavericks were honest for the most part, they were not below using dishonest means to bring to justice those who were dishonest themselves. As might be expected, Maverick had a tongue-in-cheek tone that also separated it from other Westerns on television on at the time. Maverick proved successful, doing well in the ratings and receiving critical acclaim as well. It won the Emmy for Best Western Series the only year that category was offered (1959) and was nominated for yet other Emmy Awards. Having debuted on September 22 1957, the last original episode of Maverick aired on April 22 1962. It has remained in syndication ever since.

While fans of other shows might debate what the best episodes of other shows are, in the case of Maverick there seems to be a clear consensus of what was the show's best episode. That episode is "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres," which originally aired on November 23 1958. Not only does it appear to be the favourite episode of the majority of Maverick fans, but it was the favourite episode of James Garner himself, who discussed it at length in The Garner Files: A Memoir. James Kelly regarded the episode highly as well.

In "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" Bret Maverick wins a large amount of money in a poker game in the small town of Sunny Acres. Nervous about having such a large amount of money on his person, Bret asks the head of the local bank, Bates (played by John Dehner), to open up the bank after hours so he can deposit the money there. Unfortunately, when Bret goes to get his money in the morning, Bates not only denies ever having deposited the money, but ever having met Bret. Since it is obvious that Bates has swindled him out of his money, Bret concocts a long con to get his money back and bring the banker to justice. Bret then spends his days sitting and whittling in front of the hotel across the street from the bank while his plan unfolds. 

"Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" was based on a story by Douglas Heyes, with a teleplay by series creator and producer Roy Huggins. Mr. Huggins told James Garner the idea behind the episode, in which one Maverick brother, who has been swindled out of his money, sits on a porch and whittles all day while the other Maverick brother executes the complex sting operation to get the money back. He gave Mr. Garner his choice of roles, and he decided that Bret should be the brother who sits on the porch and whittles. 

What makes "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" particularly special is that every single recurring character on the show at that time appears in the episode. Among them are Bret's frenemies Dandy Jim Buckley (played by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) and Samantha Crawford (played by Diane Brewster), and Bret and Bart's friend Big Mike McComb (played by Leo Gordon). Sadly, it would be last appearance on Maverick of both Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. and Diane Brewster (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.began appearing in 77 Sunset Strip that same season). Bart's friends, Gentleman Jim Darby (played by Richard Long) and Cindy Lou Brown (played by Arlene Howell), also helped with the con, although they dealt only with Bart and shared no scenes with Bret. It was because "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" involved every single recurring character on the show that it holds the record for the longest opening credits sequence of any Maverick episode with each actor receiving his or her own individual credit.

Amazingly enough for what may be the most beloved episode of Maverick, "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" was nominated for only one award, the Emmy for Best Cinematography for Television for Harold E. Stine. Despite this, the episode is clearly more highly regarded than many episodes of television shows that did win awards, at least as far as fans are concerned. What is more, "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" has had lasting influence. It seems possible that the TV shows Hustle and Leverage, in which confidence artists stage long cons against those who have cheated others out of money, not only owe a good deal to the TV show Maverick, but to "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres." In fact, it seems possible that the first half of the movie The Sting (1973) could have been inspired by the episode. Roy Huggins told how, in his Archive of American Television interview, he arrived at Universal one morning only to have Max Baer, Jr. ask if he was going to sue. When Mr. Huggins asked him why, Mr. Baer replied, "You didn't see The Sting?" Mr. Huggins said that he hadn't, to which Mr. Baer said, "Well see it, because the first half of it is 'Shady Deal at Sunny Acres'!" 

If "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" is so highly regarded, it is perhaps because it was simply so well done. Roy Huggins's script is filled not only with the humour viewers had come to expect from the show, but suspense as well. James Garner gives what might have been his best performance as Bret Maverick, as he sits on the porch of the Hotel Sunny Acres, seemingly unconcerned that he had just been swindled out of a large sum of money. Jack Kelly as Bart also gives a great performance as the man who actually executes the scheme. Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Diane Brewster, Leo Gordon, Richard Long, and Arlene Howell are all in top form. John Dehner as Bates the banker may be one of the show's very best villains, a man as unscrupulous as they come. In many ways "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" seems less like an episode of a television show than it does a short film or featurette made for cinemas. If there is only one drawback to "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres," it is best appreciated if one has seen several other episodes of Maverick beforehand. After all, much of the fun of the episodes comes from knowledge of Bret's relationships with Dandy Jim, Samantha, and Big Mike, and Bart's relationships with Gentleman Jim and Cindy Lou.

While Star Trek fans may argue over whether "City on the Edge of Forever," "Amok Time," or some entirely different episode is the best of that show, "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" remains the most highly regarded Maverick episode. It is not simply because viewers get to see every single recurring character on the show acting in tandem, but because it is so well done. In the end, "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" isn't simply the greatest episode of Maverick, but one of the greatest episodes of any show ever made.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The 70th Anniversary of What's My Line?

It was seventy years ago today, on February 2 1950, that long running panel game show, What's My Line?, debuted on CBS. The premise of What's My Line? was simple. Each week a panel of celebrities would try to guess the occupations of guests on the show. One of the rounds (sometimes two) would be dedicated to a "mystery guest," a celebrity guest star whose identity the panel had to guess. What's My Line? proved to be very successful, so much so that it would become the longest running American primetime game show. It originally ran from 1950 to 1967 on CBS. It would be revived in syndication in 1968. The syndicated version ran until 1975.

What's My Line? was one of the early successes of Mark Goodman-Bill Todman Productions. They had already seen success with the game show Winner Take All in 1948 and Stop the Music in 1949. It was Bob Bach, a producer on the Mark Goodman-Bill Todman radio quiz show Spin to Win, who came up with the concept behind What's My Line?. While on the subway or in bars, Mr. Bach would try to guess the occupations of various people. It was then in 1949, after some hesitation on the part of the network, that Mark Goodman and Bill Todman sold CBS on a panel game show titled Occupation Unknown. Before it debuted the show would be renamed What's My Line?, the new title being taken from the question individuals would often ask each other when discussing their occupations in the mid-20 Century, "What's your line?."

Gameplay on What's My Life? was very simple, with the show being a guessing game.The game would begin by the contestant or guest entering and signing in by writing his or her name on a chalkboard. The guest would then take a seat beside the host or "moderator." The audience at home would then be shown the guest's occupation or "line." The moderator would then tell the panel if the guest was salaried or self-employed, and after 1960 if the guest offered a service or sold a product. The first panellist would then begin asking the guest questions. If he or she received a "Yes" answer, he or she would continue questioning the guest. If he or she received a "No" answer, questioning would then pass to the next panellist. If the panel received ten "no" answers or the allotted time ran out, the guest  won the game. A panellist had the option of passing to the next panellist for whatever reason. The panel could also hold a conference in which they could discuss things.

The "mystery guest" rounds, featuring a celebrity guest, would proceed a little differently from the standard rounds. The entire panel would put on blindfolds so that they could not see the mystery guest. The mystery guest would then sign in and gameplay would begin. Rather than guessing the mystery guest's occupation, the goal was to guess the mystery guest's identity. Over the years many mystery guests appeared on What's My Line?, from such entertainment figures as Alfred Hitchcock, Bob Hope, and Angela Lansbury to such sports figures as Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, and Jack Dempsey to yet other famous people from other fields.

For the entirety of its run on CBS, the moderator of What's My Line? was John Daly. John Daly was a respected newsman who had begun his career at NBC Radio before switching to CBS Radio. He served as CBS's White House correspondent and later as a war correspondent during World War II. Mr. Daly would be the first national news reporter to break the news of the attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7 1941. He was also the first to break the news of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death. Throughout the run of What's My Line? John Daly only missed four episodes of the show.

The celebrity panel would change over time. Newspaper columnist Dorothy Kilgallen was with the show from its very beginning. She would be joined on the second episode of What's My Line by another long-running panellist, actress Arlene Francis. It was in 1951 that another long running panellist, publisher Bennett Cerf, replaced poet Louis Untermeyer on the panel. It was in 1953 that comedian Steve Allen replaced comedy writer Hal Block on the panel. Steve Allen would leave the show in 1954 to host The Tonight Show on NBC, but he would make one lasting contribution to the show (and popular culture, for that matter)  by way of its most memorable catchphrase. It was on the January 18 1953 episode that he first asked the question, "Is it bigger than a breadbox?" The question would become a mainstay of the show for the rest of its run. Eventually there was a guest whose occupation actually was making breadboxes. When Steve Allen left, he would be replaced by comedian Fred Allen. Fred Allen would remain on What's My Line? until his death in 1956. Afterwards a guest panellist would fill Fred Allen's spot on the panel until the show ended its run. After Dorothy Killgallen died in 1965, her spot would also be filled by a guest panellist.

The appeal of What's My Line? was not in its various guests, but instead in the interaction among the panellists and the many witty lines they would come up with while attempting to guess a guest's occupation. The panellists' often used double entendre, so much so that John Daly had a signal to them to warn them not to go too far. Mr. Daly would tug his right ear lobe as a warning to the panellists to back away from any further innuendoes. In particular, Bennett Cerf was known for making puns on his name, something which John Daly would sometimes try to one up him on.

While What's My Line? could be an outrageously funny show, it was also one with an air of formality. In the early days the gentleman would wear business suits. After 1953 they wore black suits with bow ties. The ladies wore evening gowns and often gloves. John Daly would usually address the panellists by the suitable honorific and their surname. For instance, he would refer to Dorothy Killgallen as "Miss Killgallen." 

For a brief time there was also a radio version of What's My Line?. It ran on NBC Radio May 20, 1952 to August 27 1952. Afterwards it aired on CBS Radio until July 1 1953. The television version would see a major change at the start of the 1966-1967 season. Having always been broadcast in black and white, it was now broadcast in colour.

What's My Line? proved to be popular from the very beginning. Unfortunately, as seasons passed its ratings would decline and its audience would grow older. It was then in 1967 that CBS cancelled What's My Line?, along with fellow panel game show I've Got a Secret and the Western Gunsmoke, because its audience was too old and it was drawing too few viewers in television's key demographic (18 to 49 year olds). While Gunsmoke would receive a reprieve, both What's My Line? and I've Got a Secret ended their network runs.

What's My Line? would not remain off the air for long, as it returned in syndication in 1968. The syndicated version was initially hosted by Wally Bruner and, after its fourth season, actor Larry Blyden. Arlene Francis returned as a panellist and would be joined by Soupy Sales as a regular panellist on the show. The revival ultimately lasted until 1975.

Over the years there have been attempts to revive What's My Line?, although none of them ever made it to the air. A live version of What's My Line? was staged from November 2004 to July 2006 by Jim Newman and J. Keith van Straaten at the ACME Comedy Theatre in Los Angeles, California. It moved to New York City in 2008 and ran for six shows.

Fortunately, for the most part What's My Line? would not befall the fate of many early television shows. In the late Forties well into the Sixties, it was not unusual for the networks to wipe game shows, soap operas, and other programming. What's My Line? was recorded through kinescope onto film. As with other programming, in the early days CBS wiped the kinescopes of What's My Line?. This stopped in July 1952 after Mark Goodman and Bill Todman found out about it. The producers then told CBS that they would pay them for the film of each episode. It is for that reason that while only ten episodes from 1950 to 1952 survive, the rest of the run of What's My Line? is mostly intact.

The surviving episodes of What's My Line? have aired on the Game Show Network and are now widely available on YouTube. As a result What's My Line? has developed a following of individuals who were not even born yet when the show was originally run. The appeal of the show for young people is manifold. First, the show stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood number among the many mystery guests on the show, so that it appeals to young fans of classic film. Second, and perhaps more importantly, young fans of What's My Line? appreciate the many bon mots thrown about by John Daly and the panellists. If What's My Line? was successful in its original run and is now being rediscovered by new generations, it is perhaps because it was a very intelligent show. Today a game show featuring a panel consisting of a respected columnist, a publisher, and a well-known actress would be unthinkable. That having been said, that is exactly what made What's My Line? a success.