by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
About a week ago Charles and I watched a miscellany of 1950’s TV shows he’d downloaded, including two prize episodes of the early-1950’s sitcom Beulah. My understanding was that this was originally produced as a vehicle for Hattie McDaniel in the lead role of Beulah, the wise-mammy maid to Harry and Alice Henderson (played by early-1940’s Universal veterans David Bruce and Jane Frazee) — essentially a modern-dress version of her Academy Award-winning role from Gone With the Wind — but McDaniel died after the first season and Louise Beavers replaced her in the role. The series entry on imdb.com is more ambiguous and seems to be saying that McDaniel only shot two episodes of the series, not an entire season. Fortunately, one of the episodes Charles downloaded featured her: a marvelous show in which the Hendersons’ son Donnie (Stuffy Singer) is doing poorly in his grade-school dance class because he finds the music he’s expected to dance to — a tea-dance waltz record of amazing insipidity — totally uninspiring.
In a plot twist that eerily anticipates the rock ’n’ roll craze of the mid-1950’s, Beulah and her boyfriend Bill (played by an actor billed as Ernest Whitman who turned out to be Ernie “Bubbles” Whitman, Armed Forces Radio Service announcer during World War II, who in between jokes about his weight got to announce a lot of great performances by Billy Eckstine’s band and many of the other great Black acts of the mid-1940’s), who in this episode runs a garage — in the later show with Louise Beavers he seemed to be a colleague of Beulah’s on the Hendersons’ household staff — get together, put on a Black boogie-woogie record and show Donnie how to do jazz dance. Donnie becomes the sensation of the school’s dance recital and, of course, pisses off the teachers and other authority figures no end, while the kids find this “new” music liberating.
The other Beulah episode — which we watched earlier — featured Louise Beavers and also centered around Donnie (a typically obnoxious movie kid but still a more interesting character than his parents), who needed baby-carriage wheels for his soap-box racer and got them by having the local store owner sell him a baby carriage on credit and bill his mom — leading everyone to the misunderstanding that his mom was pregnant. This one wasn’t as sharply written as the other — its writers were old Hollywood hack Harry Clork and a colleague named James Hill, whereas the “Waltz” episode was written by Ian McClellan Hunter (who became legendary not for any of his own scripts but from “fronting” for Dalton Trumbo on the film Roman Holiday — just before the release of the movie Hunter was blacklisted himself and was told that Paramount was taking his name off the movie; he complained to Trumbo and Trumbo got indignant and said, “They can’t do this to you!” Hunter replied, “But, Dalton, you wrote that script!” Trumbo was doing so much under-the-table work with so many “fronts” he himself had lost track of what he had and hadn’t written).
Though imdb.com lists Jean Yarbrough as the director of Beulah, both these episodes were directed by Richard Bare (also a “B”-movie director keeping alive by working for television, though at least Bare had got to make his “B”’s for a major studio, Warners). The show started with Beulah (whichever actress played her) speaking right to the camera and bemoaning the fact that Bill kept putting off their marriage, and it also had a third regular Black character: Oriole (played by Dorothy Dandridge’s sister Ruby in a chirpy-voiced manner reminiscent of Butterfly McQueen, who played a similar role opposite McDaniel in Gone With the Wind), a maid at one of the neighbors’ homes whom Beulah used as a friend and confidante.
According to Archive.org, only seven episodes of Beulah now exist even though the show ran for three seasons, and they have only three on their site, but even on the basis of these two shows it’s a quite remarkable sitcom and holds up well — and it’s interesting, noting Black bandleader Andy Kirk’s bitter remark that “civil rights worked in reverse in the music business” (he meant that Southern venue owners had been willing to hire Black bands when they could still segregate the audience, but once they had to integrate the audience they went with white bands exclusively), that according to the evidence of Beulah civil rights worked in reverse on TV as well: when they recycled this concept in the 1960's as Hazel, they picked a white actress, Shirley Booth, to play the all-knowing maid.
Certainly the two Beulah shows were a lot better than the third sitcom item Charles put on this disc: an episode of an early-1950’s sitcom variously known as The Stu Erwin Show and Trouble with Father, in which the whiny-voiced comedian from all too many 1930’s movies got to play a school principal and his real-life wife June Collyer played his on-screen wife — though the show wasn’t really I Love Lucy except in reverse: she was the level-headed one and he was the scatterbrain who came up with various mad schemes — in this show, running his own chicken farm on his premises so he doesn’t have to buy eggs. It was a perfectly decent but pretty uninspired show — and let’s face it, as a real-life married couple playing husband and wife on a sitcom they were a far cry below either Lucy and Desi or George and Gracie.
Charles’ disc also included a couple of other items, one of which was a half-hour show called Joe Santa Claus in which the central character is Joe Peters (Ray Montgomery), who’s appointed to play Santa Claus at the department store where he works because he’s considered the most expendable — he’s had a series of jobs he’s walked out on, and he doesn’t seem to be long for this one either. In a series of flashbacks it’s revealed that he served in World War II and brought home a German war bride, Maria (Maria Palmer), fathered a daughter by her and attempted to maintain a family, but his scattered work history, exaggerated sense of his own importance and general failure to Play Well With Others led to a separation, and at the moment he’s drafted to play Santa he doesn’t know the whereabouts of his wife and daughter. Needless to say, daughter herself shows up at the store to see Santa Claus and, with neither knowing who the other is, she pours out her heart to the department-store Santa and says all she wants for Christmas is her daddy back. This could have been insufferably treacly but for the writer and director, Alex Gruenberg (adapting a story by Howard J. Green), who not only plays down the obvious opportunities for cheap sentimentality but even gets a refreshingly hard-nosed performance out of the actress who plays the girl, Jeri James — she’s more bitter than sad over her dad’s disappearance and she pleads for his return with a grim determination that probably softens Joe’s heart far more than a more openly emotional tear-jerking one would have. It certainly moved me more than a more sentimental presentation of this material would have!
Also on the disc was an intriguing excerpt from the famous 1957 TV special that introduced the Edsel — it would be interesting to see the whole thing if it survives “complete” — featuring Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong in a sort-of duet on the song “The Birth of the Blues.” It’s mainly Sinatra singing it to the George Siravo arrangement he’d recorded it with five years earlier and Armstrong doing his level best to squeeze himself into it somehow — and it doesn’t help that Armstrong cracks on a few trumpet notes (his intonation was usually astonishingly close to perfect) or that the balance is pretty wretched, favoring Frank Sinatra’s singing over Armstrong’s contributions (it figures) and Armstrong’s trumpet playing over his singing. Given the beauty of Armstrong’s duets with Bing Crosby (they seem to have played well together because they’d both come up in the 1920’s and they’d known each other since 1931, when Crosby frequently played hooky from his own engagement at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. to see Armstrong perform at Sebastian's New Cotton Club — an establishment that got put out of business when the gangsters who owned the original Cotton Club in New York sued Frank Sebastian for plagiarizing the name!) it’s rather disappointing that he and Sinatra didn’t do better together — they both seemed nervous, as if all too aware that this was a Big Event and it was going out live to a presumably enormous audience (though the post-show ratings were as disappointing as the sales of the Edsel itself), and they were both so scared of making a mistake that they couldn’t relax and show off their talents at their best. Still, this clip is well worth having, especially since Armstrong and Sinatra did almost nothing together — even when they were all in the film High Society it was Crosby, not Sinatra, who partnered Armstrong in the duets!
One of the items we watched last night was a third episode of Beulah that I’d spotted on archive.org, “Beulah Goes Gardening,” from the Hattie McDaniel season, in which the Hendersons, Beulah’s employers, decide to economize by firing their gardener. Supposedly dad Harry (David Bruce) is going to mow the lawn, mom Alice (Jane Frazee) is going to trim the rose bush (a particularly prized possession of Harry’s) and son Donnie (Stuffy Singer) is going to pull the weeds — but on the first Saturday when they have to do all this, they go out on various (separate) outings and each one in turn sticks Beulah with their job. There’s also a subplot in which Beulah takes the rose bush to a plant store to have it resuscitated — and the owner sells it instead, leading Beulah to take a couple of “loaner” rose bushes that are successively larger than the old one, which earns her an inaccurate reputation as a green thumb. While hardly in the same league as “The Waltz” episode, this is still an incredibly warm, funny show highlighted by the marvelous acting of McDaniel, who as she did throughout her career turned the “Mammy” stereotype into Earth Mother, all-seeing, all-knowing and telling us through a loving wink at the camera that she knows she’s really in charge, even though she’s nominally the maid, and without her all these white people would hardly be able to find the floor with thelr legs when they got out of bed in the morning. (Like the other two Beulah episodes on archive.org, this one was directed by Richard Bare — and the script is by Nathaniel Curtis, a reasonable enough author but hardly in the same league as Ian McClellan Hunter.)
I also paired this with a cartoon from Universal from about 1940 to 1940 called Scrub Me, Mama, with a Boogie Beat — essentially a cartoon video for the song of that title, which was recorded both by Will Bradley’s band and the Andrews Sisters. I thought it would be an interesting companion piece for Beulah since it was criticized on the archive.org Web site for its demeaning depictions of Black people — but while that’s there (the opening scene is of a stereotypically shiftless, lazy Black guy with a prominent nose getting stung in it by a bee, and him barely waking up long enough to say “ouch” and then going back to sleep), so is a dazzling use of color (by the time this was made Walt Disney’s three-year monopoly of three-strip Technicolor for animation was long over) and a fast, energetic presentation quite suited to the exuberance of the song by Don Raye. (I’d thought he wrote this one with his frequent collaborator, Gene DePaul, but no-o-o-o-o: this one is credited to Raye solo.) This cartoon, produced by Woody Woodpecker creator Walter Lantz, is also noteworthy for a dazzling color palette, mostly greens and reds, and for one of the rare times the “New Universal” (1937-1946) studio logo was shown in color (the sky was dark green — not deep blue or black, as I’d have expected — and the Universal letters were a kind of blue-white, while the stars in the sky were orange. Nice going!
In my researches into songwriter Arthur Johnston on archive.org I had run across a 1939 Popeye cartoon called It’s the Natural Thing to Do, a typical cross-promotion from Paramount (the song was written by Johnston and Sam Coslow for Bing Crosby’s 1937 film Double or Nothing) with a fascinating and surprisingly modern-sounding premise: Popeye and Bluto receive a fan letter saying that the author likes their movies but wants an end to the roughhouse stuff between them; instead they should treat each other with decency and decorum because “it’s the natural thing to do.” They reach a level of exquisite boredom with each other Dorothy Parker joked about when she reviewed Emily Post’s Etiquette — until Popeye and Bluto start crashing into each other as homoerotically as the Fleischer brothers and their animators dared, and soon they’ve abandoned all pretense of etiquette and “the natural thing to do” as they go at each other hammer-and-tongs. It’s a clever movie and has its share of physically impossible gags — including Popeye flying through the air from one of Bluto’s punches, landing inside a portrait of a woman and then her face dissolves into his — that made 1930’s cartoons watchable and readily distinguishable from the live-action silent comedies that had preceded them.
After that I screened the other “filler” on my disc, an episode of the rather interesting 1950’s British TV show The Invisible Man (ostensibly based on the character created by H. G. Wells but really a hero rather than a villain — his street name was Peter Brady and, like the modern-day superheroes but not the ones in the classic canon, he’s known to almost everybody else in the dramatis personae — the moment he shows up at an airport in the telltale bandages around his neck, everyone knows who he is) called “The Mink Coat,” featuring a relatively prestigious guest star, Hazel Court, as a ventriloquist puppeteer who’s en route to Paris to perform in a French nightclub when she’s waylaid at the airport by a man who’s part of a two-person team who sneaked into a secret installation, photographed some important plans (they’re shown as blueprints and I joked he had actually taken pictures of the plant head’s plans to remodel his house rather than getting the nuclear secrets he was clearly after) and put them into a small canister, only to avoid a security screening he sneaked up behind this woman, cut open the liner of her mink coat and put the microfilm inside.
Once all the principals — including Brady and his girlfriend — were in Paris, the man made some incredibly clumsy passes at the woman to try to get close enough to her to recover her microfilm — she puts him off the first time (it’s obvious she doesn’t realize he’s a spy; he just thinks he’s harassing her to try to get in her pants) and her husband (the spy didn’t realize she had one), a juggler on the same bill as her, blocks the second. It’s a nice, fast little vest-pocket adventure — it had to be because it was shot for a half-hour time slot (it times out as a little over 26 minutes to make room for commercials — gradually a half-hour commercial TV show shrank to 24 minutes and now the standard is 22!) and the hero has to get the villains quickly; the coolest moment in the show is towards the end, when the Invisible Man grabs the precious microfilm from one of the villains (the husband found it in the wife’s mink coat and, curious about what it was, took it to a film director friend of theirs and had it developed) and sets it afire, thereby preserving whatever the atomic secrets were — and it’s a delight (the sort of delight one watches invisible-man movies for) to see it go up in flames in mid-air.
While not a patch on the movies Universal made in the 1930’s and 1940’s on this premise, the Invisible Man TV show (one of my most curious memories from my childhood is of Peter Brady driving a convertible down a freeway — and he’s dressed but his head is invisible) is well done and reasonably engaging — it holds up pretty well, and to see an actress with the reputation of Hazel Court as guest star was a special treat.