Saturday, March 2, 2024

"You Just May Be the One" by The Monkees

As my regular readers know, I have been a Monkees fan ever since CBS reran the show on Saturday mornings in the Seventies. Among my favourite Monkees songs is "You Just May Be the One," written by Michael Nesmith.. The original version of "You Just May Be the One" was recorded on July 18 1966. This version would be used on the TV show during its first season. A new version was recorded on March 16 1967 for their album Headquarters, the first album on which The Monkees played their own instruments. For that reason, while the original version of "You Just May Be the One" was recorded using session musicians, the new version was recorded with Mike Nesmith on lead vocals and 12-string guitar, Peter Tork on bass, Micky Dolenz on drums and providing backing vocals, and Davy Jones on tambourine.

Friday, March 1, 2024

Anne Whitfield Passes On

Anne Whitefield, perhaps best known for playing Major General John Waverly's (Dean Jagger) daughter Susan in White Christmas (1954), died on February 15 2024 at the age of 85.

Anne Whitfield was born on August 27 1938 in Oxford, Mississippi. Her father, Richard N. Whitfield, was the Orchestra and Marching Band Director at University of Mississippi. Her mother, Frances Turner Whitfield, was a professor of Speech and Drama. When Anne Whitfield was four year old, while her father was serving in U.S. Army as a band director during World War II, she and her mother moved to Los Angeles. She attended Rosewood Avenue Public School in Los Angeles.

By the time she was seven years old, Anne Whitfield was already acting on radio. She was a regular on The Baby Snooks Show, Dr. Paul, Mr. and Mrs. Blandings, One Man's Family, Our Miss Brooks, and The Phil Harris Alice Faye Show. She also appeared on a wide array of other radio shows, including Lux Radio Theatre, The Screen Guild Theatre, Family Theatre, Cavalcade of America, The Cisco Kid, The Harold Peary Show, and yet others.

Anne Whitfield made her film debut in an uncredited role in The Gunfighter in 1950. She made her television debut in an episode of The Bigelow Theatre in 1951. In the Fifties she appeared in the movies The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952), White Christmas (1954), Juvenile Jungle (1958), and Senior Prom (1958). She provided voices for the animated shorts "Real Gone Woody" (1954) and "Baby Boogie," as well as the animated feature Peter Pan (1953). She guest starred on the TV shows Racket Squad, Hollywood Opening Night, I Married Joan, Cavalcade of America, One Man's Family, Front Row Center, The Johnny Carson Show, The O. Henry Playhouse, Father Knows Best, The Thin Man, The Donna Reed Show, Men of Annapolis, Bonanza, Dobie Gillis, Tate, One Step Beyond, and Manhunt.

In the Sixties Miss Whitfield guest starred on the TV shows Tales of Wells Fargo, Peter Gunn, General Electric Theatre, Rawhide, Cheyenne, Ben Casey, 87th Precinct, The Untouchables, Hawaiian Eye, Laramie, 77 Sunset Strip, The Dakotas, The New Phil Silvers Show, Wendy and Me, 12 O' Clock High, That Girl, Days of Our Lives, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, The Outsider, Dragnet 1968, Ironside, Adam-12, The Fisher Family, The Wonderful World of Disney, and The Bold Ones: The New Doctors. She appeared in the movies The New Interns (1964) and ...tick...tick...tick (1970).

In the Seventies Anne Whitfield guest starred on the television shows The D.A., Ironside, Adam-12, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and Emergency!. Anne Whitfield retired from acting in the Seventies, but she made appearances in the movie The Prodigal (1983) and Cookie's Fortune (1999).

Following her acting career, Anne Whitfield moved to Olympia, Washington and received a Bachelors in Communications degree at Evergreen State College. She became a steward for Clean Water at the State of Washington's Department of Ecology. She continued to be an activist for various issues up until she died.

Anne Whitfield was a very talented actress. She was memorable as the General's daughter in White Christmas. She also gave many great performances in her guest appearances. In the Perry Mason episode "The Case of the Ugly Duckling," she played Alice Trilling, a young woman who can only inherit her late father's toy company if she marries with a year's time. In the One Step Beyond episode "If You See Sally," she played a farmers daughter (the "Sally" of the title) who is killed during storm. In the Gunsmoke episode "Don Matteo" she played a role generally different from others she'd played, a saloon girl named Trudy. Anne Whitfield was quite versatile, and could play a wide variety of roles.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Good Times: A Historic Television Series

Over fifty years after its debut on February 8 1974 on CBS, Good Times remains popular. It was also a historic show. Good Times was the first television show centred on a Black nuclear family, with a father, mother, and children. Previously Julia had focused on a widow with a young son. Sanford and Son centred on an elderly, widowed father and his grown son. In many respects, then, Good Times was breaking new ground.

Good Times starred Esther Rolle as Florida Evans and John Amos as James Evans. They lived in an unnamed public housing project in Chicago, inspired by the actual Cabrini–Green Homes in the city. Their children were J.J. (Jimmie Walker), an aspiring artist and illustrator, Thelma (Bern Nadette Stanis), an intelligent young woman who sees being educated as a way to improve both her own and her family's situation, and Michael (Ralph Carter), who even at his young age is something of an activist. One of their neighbours and Florida's best friend was Willona Woods (Ja'Net DuBois), a recently divorced woman who works at a boutique.

The creation of Good Times was somewhat complicated. Eric Monte and Michael Evans developed a concept for a show based around a family living in a housing project in Chicago. The show was largely inspired by Eric Monte's childhood spent in Cabrini-Green Homes. Eric Monte had earlier created the characters of Louise and George Jefferson on All in the Family. He later wrote the movie Cooley High (1975) and created the TV series What's Happening!!. Mike Evans played the role of Lionel Jefferson on All in the Family and later The Jeffersons.

At the same time, the producers of Maude wanted a spin-off from that series featuring Maude's maid Florida (Esther Rolle). On Maude, John Amos played Florida's husband Henry, a  firefighter. They then took the show that Eric Monte and Michael Evans had in development, and changed Florida's backstory to fit in with Mr. Monte and Michael Evans's concept. As a result, Good Times was at the same time a spin-off of Maude and yet not a spin-off of Maude. Florida and her family now lived in Chicago and had apparently never lived in New York. Florida's husband was now named James and he did not work as a firefighter, but instead he worked a variety of blue collar jobs. While reference was made to Florida having worked as a maid, it was apparently years before the events of the show. Furthermore Florida had worked for a Chicago couple, and no mention was ever made of Maude.

The theme song to Good Times was composed by Dave Grusin (who had composed the scores for Divorce American Style, The Graduate, and other movies) with lyrics written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman (who had earlier written the lyrics for "In the Heat of the Night," composed by Quincy Jones). It was sung by session musician and singer Jim Gilstrap and R&B artist Blinky Williams. The sixteenth line of the Good Times has always been a mystery for many fans of the show. It has been interpreted as both "Hangin' in and jivin'" and "Haingin' in a chow line." Alan and Marilyn Bergman would later clarify that the line is "Hangin' in and jivin'."

As originally conceived, Good Times dealt with life in public housing, as well as the family trying to make it out of poverty. Like other sitcoms produced by Norman Lear at the time, it dealt with several social issues, including racism, sexuality, health, sexism, gang violence, and so on. It was fairly early in the run of Good Times that the character of J.J. became the show's breakout character. Jimmie Walker gave credit for the creation of J.J.'s catchphrase, "Dyn-o-mite!," to producer and director John Rich. Mr. Rich insisted that J.J. say the phrase in every single episode, despite doubts from both Jimmie Walker and producer Norman Lear. As it turned out, the catchphrase caught on with viewers.

The popularity of J.J. resulted in more and more episodes centred around the character. This did not sit well with either Esther Rolle or John Amos, who were unhappy with J.J.'s increasingly buffoonish and even stereotypical behaviour. Esther Rolle was particularly critical of the character, saying in a 1975 interview with Ebony, "He's 18 and he doesn't work. He can't read or write. He doesn't think. The show didn't start out to be that...Little by little—with the help of the artist, I suppose, because they couldn't do that to me—they have made J.J. more stupid and enlarged the role. Negative images have been slipped in on us through the character of the oldest child."

John Amos was so unhappy about the direction of Good Times that he eventually had confrontations with executive producer Norman Lear. He was then fired after season three. While the reason for John Amos's departure was given as the actor wanting to purse a film career, in truth his contract had simply not been renewed. James Evans was then written out of the show as having died. Esther Rolle remained with Good Times until the end of the fourth season, when she left the show because she was unhappy with its direction. It was late in the fourth season that the character of Carl Dixon (Moses Gunn) was introduced on the show. Carl Dixon was the owner of a haberdashery for whom Michael had worked for a time. As the season wore on Florida and Carl began dating. It was in the two-part, fourth season finale that Florida and Carl became engaged, even though he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. In the first episode of the fifth season, it was explained that Florida and Carl had gotten married and moved to Arizona.

With Esther Rolle no longer on the show, the fifth season would see major changes to Good Times. Willona's role became more important, as she checked on the younger members of the Evans family frequently. Nathan Bookman, the building superintendent, went from being a recurring character to a regular, playing a bigger role in plots. Janet Jackson joined the cast as Penny, a girl abandoned by her mother who was eventually adopted by Willona.

Beyond the major cast, Good Times also featured several recurring characters throughout the show's run. Ned the Wino (Raymond Allen) was the local drunk who lived in the same neighbourhood as the Evans family. "Sweet Daddy" Williams (Theodore Wilson) was the neighbourhood pimp and numbers runner, whose given name was Marion. For the most part he was threatening, but he could occasionally be soft-hearted. Alderman Fred C. Davis (Albert Reed Jr.) was a somewhat dodgy politician that the Evans family generally disliked and Willona outright hated. Wanda Williams was a resident of the Evans family's building, who often attended funerals, even of people she doesn't know. Lenny (Dap "Sugar" Willie), also known as "Looting Lenny," was a peddler whose items were often suspected to have been stolen. He kept his wares attached to the inside of his coat. Throughout the show's run there were several other recurring characters on the show.

The sixth and final season of Good Times would see Esther Rolle return to the show in a recurring role. Without Esther Rolle, ratings for Good Times had plummeted, going from no. 24 for the year in its fourth season to no. 55 for the year in its fifth season. The producers then approached Esther Rolle about coming back to the show. Miss Rolle had several conditions before she would agree to return to Good Times. It should come as no surprise that among her demands was that J.J. would be made a more responsible character. After all, the reason she had left was that she felt J.J. was a poor role model for Black teenagers and something of a stereotype. She also wanted the character of Carl Dixon to be written out of the show. Esther Rolle had not been happy about the subplot in which Florida had begun dating and then married Carl. First, she felt that it was much soon following James's death for Florida to date anyone else, let alone marry anyone else. Second, she felt that as a religious woman, Florida would not consider dating, let alone marrying an atheist like Carl. It was then in the first episode of the sixth season that Florida returned to Chicago without Carl. Carl was briefly mentioned in the episode and then mentioned only one more time during the season. Florida even used the name "Florida Evans" instead of "Florida Dixon." It was as if he had never existed. The first episode of the sixth season would also see the introduction of Keith Anderson (Ben Powers), a professional football player to whom Thelma became engaged and would marry during the season.

Unfortunately the return of Esther Rolle to Good Times would not save the show. CBS moved Good Times from Monday night to Saturday night for the first several episodes of the season. The series was then returned to Wednesday night. It seems likely that the changes in the show's time slot further hurt Good Times in the Nielsens, this after ratings had been declining for some time. For its final season, Good Times only came in at no. 91 for the year. The show was then cancelled.

The cancellation did come in time for Good Times to have a proper season finale. In the final episode, Michael goes to college. Thelma  and Keith announce that they are expecting. They are also moving into a luxury apartment, and they ask Florida to move in with them so she can watch the baby. Willona is promoted to the head buyer at the boutique she works at, and as a result gets an apartment in the same building as Thelma and Keith. J.J. finally gets a big break, becoming a professional comic book artist. His character is a superhero named DynoWoman, based on his sister Thelma.

Following its network run, Good Times would have success as a syndicated rerun. It ran for some time on TV Land. It can currently be seen on TV One, Get TV, and Catchy Comedy. The entire run of the show has also been released on DVD. It is also available on such streaming channels as Freevee, Peacock, and Philo.

Good Times was among the shows to have an episode recreated for the 2019 series of specials aired on ABC titled Live in Front of a Studio Audience. The specials were broadcast live and recreated episodes of various sitcoms, among them All in the Family and The Jeffersons. In the case of Good Times, it was "The Politicians," in which Alderman Fred Davis was running for re-election,  that was recreated for the special. In the special, Viola Davis played Florida, Andre Braugher played James, Jay Pharoah played J.J., Corinne Foxx played Thelma, and Asante Blackk played Michael. The role of Fred Davis was played by none other than John Amos, the original James on Good Times.

While Good Times declined in quality during its run and the character of J.J. would be the source of some controversy, it was very much a groundbreaking sitcom. Never before had a Black family with a father, a mother, and children been portrayed in a regularly scheduled show on American television. Early in its run it often tackled issues of concern to African Americans and issues of concern to those living in poverty of any ethnicity. Indeed, early in its run it was nominated for two Humanitas awards. If Good Times remains popular to this day, it is perhaps because it was a revolutionary show for its time that addressed issues that are still pertinent even now. I have no doubt people will still be watching the show fifty years from now.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Bright Road (1953)

Bright Road
(1953) is historic for giving Dorothy Dandridge her first lead role in a feature film. It is also historic as the film debut of Harry Belafonte. A little over a year later Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte would be reunited in Carmen Jones (1954), the film with which both would achieve stardom. At the same time Bright Road (1953) was a rarity for its time. In 1953 any time a film featured Black characters, it was more often than not a message film dealing with social issues. In contrast, Bright Road was a look at rural, African American life in which a young teacher attempts to get through to one of her students.

Bright Road centred on Jane Richards (Dorothy Dandridge), a teacher at the start of her career working at a Black rural grade school in Alabama. Among her students is C.T Young (Philip Hepburn), a student who is disinterested in school and has spent two years in every grade. The school's principal, Mr. Williams (Harry Belafonte), has little hope for Miss Richards's efforts.

Bright Road was based on the short story "See How They Run" by Mary Elizabeth Vroman, which was published in 1941 in Ladies Home Journal and re-published in Ebony in 1952. MGM bought the rights to the story, and hired Mary Elizabeth Vroman to help Emmet Lavery to write the screenplay. As a result, she became the first Black woman to become a member of the Screen Writers Guild. The movie's working title was See How They Run, after the short story upon which it was based, but it was changed to avoid conflict with a stage play of the same name.  Bright Road was produced on a budget of only $377,000. MGM also gave the movie a brief 19-day shooting schedule.

While Bright Road was made quickly and on little money, the movie had quite a bit of talent working on it. Its cinematographer was none other than Alfred Gilks, who had shot such films as Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) and An American in Paris (1951). It was edited by Joseph Dervin, who was later nominated for several Emmys for his work on such shows The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Kung Fu, and won an Emmy for The Eleventh Hour. The composer for Bright Road was David Rose, who later served as the composer on the films Operation Petticoat (1959) and Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960), as well as the TV series Bonanza. He also composed the instrumental "The Stripper," which went to no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The director for Bright Road was Gerald Mayer, who found himself directing B-movies such as Dial 1119 (1950) and The Sellout (1952) despite, or perhaps because, he was the nephew of MGM Louis B. Mayer. He later did a good deal of work in television, on shows from Perry Mason to Lou Grant.

Of course, Bright Road would give Dorothy Dandridge her first starring role. She had been working in feature films since 1940 when she appeared in the race film Four Shall Die (1940). Throughout the Forties she generally appeared in bit parts in films, but by the Fifties her career had begun to improve. In 1951 she appeared as Melmendi, Queen of the Ashuba in Tarzan's Peril and a major role in The Harlem Globetrotters. While the role of teacher Jane Richards was less glamorous than many she would play, Dorothy Dandridge was very happy to appear in Bright Road. In the book Everything and Nothing: The Dorothy Dandridge Tragedy by Dorothy Dandridge and Earl Conrad, she expressed her pleasure about a movie with  "...a theme which showed that beneath any colour skin, people were simply people. I had a feeling that themes like this might do more real good than the more hard-hitting protest pictures. I wanted any black girl in the audience to look at me performing in this film and be able to say to herself, 'Why, this schoolteacher could be me.'"

Both Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte were known as singers, and both were given the opportunity to sing in Bright Road. It is early in the film that Mr. Belafonte sings "Suzanne (Every Night When the Sun Goes Down)." Later in the film Miss Dandridge sings the words to the Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem "The Princess: Sweet and Low." Curiously, this marks one of the few times movies audiences got to hear Dorothy Dandridge's actual singing voice. Although she was known for her nightclub act, in many of her later films (including Carmen Jones) her voice was dubbed.

Bright Road received general positive, if not particularly remarkable, reviews upon its release. The movie won an Urban League award for "contribution towards interracial cooperation," as well as a George Washington Institute Merit Plaque. Unfortunately, while Bright Road was unlike any other movie out at the time and had received good notices, it did not do well at the box office. In the United States and Canada, it only earned  $179,000 at the box office. This meant it lost $263,000. Fortunately, interest in the film picked up after Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte had achieved stardom.

Today Bright Road might seem like a simple story of a teacher's attempt to reach a student, but at the time it was revolutionary for that very fact. Most movies featuring Black characters at the time were centred around racial conflict. As a story centred around a rural African American life was unique for the era, much as it is even now. While it is a much quieter film, in many ways Bright Road is as groundbreaking as such movies as No Way Out (1950) and Shadows (1959).