By Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
One of the movies Charles and I watched last night was a 1954 pilot for a TV series called Meet the O’Briens, so obscure imdb.com doesn’t seem to list it — certainly it was never picked up and only this episode ever existed — starring Dave O’Brien as a chronically unemployed young man living with his in-laws (Emory Parnell and Helen Spring) and trying to make his wife happy with him even though he’s not only not bringing in any income but just about everything he tries goes wrong. What was most astonishing about this show was how it prefigured All in the Family, though without the politics — the father-in-law was a proletarian and the character played by O’Brien was clumsy and comically idiotic.
In this story, written by David Barclay (also the credited producer) and Eddie Forman, Dave wrecks the family car and, in the funniest scenes in the show, he and a tow-truck operator (Willie Best, in one of the strongest appearances I’ve seen by him — yes, he’s playing the same slow-witted shuffling Black servant stereotype he always did, but given that he’s playing opposite a white character who’s even stupider than he is, it manages to be funnier than Best’s usual schtick) turn a crushed front end into a car that’s in bits and pieces: their first attempt to tow it lifts the bumper off the car, the second lifts the entire front end and then the whole engine gets pulled from its moorings and swung around on the business end of Best’s tow truck. Needless to say, he has to report to his father-in-law that he’s just destroyed the family car and all he has to show for it is the $60 the junkman paid him for what was left.
The writers concoct a series of comic reversals in which it turns out that there’s an insurance policy on the car which will pay a bit over $500 and allow Dave’s father-in-law to replace it — only Dave gets swindled by Silly Sammy (Eddie Marr), the used-car dealer, and an old woman (Hellene Hill), who jointly scam him out of the $500 and sell him back the same car, only repainted. Throughout the whole show Dave keeps saying he should move back to Denver, where he was living before he married, and where he has more contacts and can therefore have a better chance of finding a job — and his father-in-law as well as his wife keep talking him out of it.
Meet the O’Briens was a Roland Reed production and recruited a lot of Hollywood heavyweights (or at least medium-heavyweights) behind the cameras: the cinematographer was Paramount veteran Lucien Andriot, the art director McClure Capps (Sam Goldwyn’s son-in-law), with Dick L’Estrange as production manager, S. Roy Luby as “supervising editor” and William Beaudine, Jr. as assistant director — and the director was Abbott and Costello veteran Charles Barton. It’s a modestly amusing show but I can see why it wasn’t picked up as a series — the TV executives who said no probably worried about how they were going to sustain enough fresh complications from the basic premise to do a new and funny episode every week. Also, Dave O’Brien was considerably, shall we say, portlier than he’d been during his days as a leading man at PRC in the early 1940’s — though he was still in good enough shape to take a nice pratfall down a long, steep flight of stairs inside the two-story house in which the main characters live!