Everything is Gray: Five Moral Lessons from Naked City

Classic TV Detectives Blogathon bannerIn an Italian restaurant near the New York City Criminal Court Building, Detective Adam Flint is brooding about the nature of guilt.

“I deal with guilt every day, and it’s been years I thought about what it really is,” he muses to his actress fiancée Libby.

At this moment, Detective Flint has good reason to wonder. He’s in the restaurant during the lunch recess of a murder trial—the re-trial, actually, of a thief and murderer named Joseph Creeley. Detective Flint apprehended Creeley years earlier, in a violent confrontation that followed Creeley’s robbery of a jewelry store. In the course of the robbery, Creeley killed the old man who owned the store and permanently crippled his widow.

Flint is a prosecution witness in this trial, as he was in the previous one that sent Creeley to death row. But this time, Flint is hoping that the defense will prevail.

You see, shortly before Creeley’s scheduled execution, doctors found a tumor growing in the criminal’s brain. When they removed it, they also removed the past 10 years from Creeley’s memory, as well as the violent impulses that took over his life in the months leading up to the robbery.

Creeley’s defense attorney is arguing that the tumor caused that violent behavior—that the tumor, in fact, was the real murderer.

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This kind of complicated moral dilemma is a defining feature of Naked City, which began life as a half-hour series based closely on the 1948 Mark Hellinger film of the same name. John McIntire recreated Barry Fitzgerald’s role as the wise and experience Lieutenant Muldoon and dimply James Franciscus played rookie detective Jimmy Halloran.

Like the motion picture Naked City, the series filmed in New York City, largely on the city’s streets.

Critics embraced it from the beginning.

UPI’s William Ewald praised the show’s layered treatment of crime and justice: “It recognizes that not all juvenile delinquents are punks, that violence is a symptom of something out of joint, that life isn’t merely a matter of the good guys versus the bad guys. And although its plots are usually thin, sorrow and pity wash over its flesh. It faces up to the human condition, unlike slicker action shows…”

The show died after one season. Producer Herbert Leonard and frequent writer Stirling Silliphant went on to create another acclaimed series, Route 66, then got the green light to revive Naked City in an hour-long format.

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Debuting in 1960, this version starred Paul Burke as sensitive young Detective Adam Flint opposite Horace McMahon’s crusty Lieutenant Mike Parker. (Harry Bellaver played another 65th precinct officer, Detective Frank Arcaro, throughout both versions of the series.)

This version aired for three seasons, and its 1963 cancellation surprised its cast and outraged critics.

In a way, though, it seems fitting that Naked City died when it did, before the assassination of John F. Kennedy ended the brief era of idealism it represents, and before the rapid cultural shifts of the late 1960s polarized our national discourse in ways that still reverberate today.

Naked City’s vision of the human experience is as complex as the city in which its stories unfold, as varied as those 8 million people who populate it.

Since this is the Classic TV Detectives Blogathon, I prepared by focusing on the detectives themselves. This isn’t easy because Naked City does not dwell on its officers’ backstories and personal motivations. In Season One, we get occasional glimpses of Detective Halloran’s wife; she mostly waits at home and worries about him. Subsequent seasons give a more substantial role to Detective Flint’s fiancée Libby, who’s living a proto-That Girl life as an aspiring actress. Nancy Malone imbues Libby with warmth and intelligence, and she and Paul Burke make Libby and Adam a believable couple. Libby still mostly exists to be a sounding board and solace for Adam, though.

Adam and Libby in their typical attitudes--he worrying about work, she worrying about him.

Adam and Libby in their typical attitudes–he worrying about work, she worrying about him.

As I watched episodes whose events touched the show’s detectives in a more personal way than usual, I learned little about their lives but a lot about the moral vision that guides them—and, by extension, the show itself:

1. “Everything is gray.”
Those are the words that Joseph Creeley mutters as he awakens after surgery and finds a 10-year void in his memory. Struggling with the nature of guilt, Adam repeats these words during his lunch with Libby. His ability to see so many sides to an issue frustrates him, although Libby assures him it’s one of his finest qualities.

This is one of Naked City’s finest qualities, too. Its stories evoke a measure of our sympathy for nearly every character, even those we first encounter during brutal acts of violence.

Consider this 10-minute opening sequence from 1961’s “Requiem for a Sunday Afternoon.” We feel the wronged husband’s pain but can’t see the young man dragged into this situation (Burt Reynolds!) as a villain. We can even find some understanding for the wife, trapped in a marriage she never wanted.

2. When you want to know who you are, look inward.

In “Bullets Cost Too Much,” Adam endures the shifting winds of public opinion. Paying a visit to a bar that hasn’t been closing on time, he witnesses an armed robbery. A mouthy drunk gets in the thieves’ way and gets shot, while Adam sits and watches, unable to intervene without endangering other bar patrons. The thieves get away, although Adam shoots one during the escape.

The jeering crowds that gather around Adam even toss out the ultimate Cold War-era insult, comparing him to Communist security forces.

The jeering crowds that gather around Adam even toss out the ultimate Cold War-era insult, likening him to Communist security forces.

In a parallel story, the doctor brother of one of the thieves struggles with his conscience as he treats the wounded man and avoids alerting the authorities.

In the end, Adam helps capture the thieves and earns headlines as glowing as previous ones were critical.

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Libby frames both to remind Adam to rely on his own sense of integrity, rather than external assessments.

(In the show’s typically complex way, we are left to doubt whether Adam’s original judgment in the bar was correct. The doctor’s girlfriend, a sympathetic and unbiased character, tells Libby that she studied bar diagrams closely and believes that Adam could have used the element of surprise to save the drunk’s life.)

3. “Life is precious, every hour of it.”

Those are Adam’s words in the Joseph Creeley trial, as he explains why he authorized Creeley’s risky brain surgery. (Unable to decide for himself about the surgery, Creeley had given Adam his power of attorney.)

Adam’s reverence for life faces its toughest test in “Prime of Life” when Lieutenant Parker orders him to witness an execution.

As moments pass slowly in the death chamber, Adam has flashbacks to the condemned man’s crime, as well as to his own agonized soul-searching in the weeks leading up to the execution.

As moments pass slowly in the death chamber, Adam has flashbacks to the condemned man’s crime, as well as to his own agonized soul-searching in the weeks leading up to the execution.

After the execution, as Adam drives away from the prison, we are left to reflect on the words Lieutenant Parker used when tasking Adam with this duty: “That gun you carry gives you the power of life and death…maybe it’s a good thing to think about life and death.”

4. “We are all responsible for each other.”

Describing a 1958 episode about juvenile delinquency, TV critic Fred Remington described the main character’s problem as “a terrible, aching loneliness.”

Naked City rarely attaches labels or diagnoses to its criminals, but a lack of human connection seems to drive many of them.

In the first-season episode “ And a Merry Christmas to the Force on Patrol,” an officer subbing for Detective Halloran on Christmas Eve gets shot during a liquor store stake-out. One thief, Marco, is captured, but he refuses to help police identify or locate his brother. Halloran is shaken and angry, but Lieutenant Muldoon takes a softer approach. When Marco learns that his brother was shot while fleeing, Marco breaks down and tells Muldoon where to find him.

Later, Muldoon has to return to Marco’s cell to inform him that his brother died before police got to him.

Marco, shattered that his brother died alone, reaches out to the only person can—Muldoon.

Marco, shattered that his brother died alone, reaches out to the only person can—Muldoon.

(By the way, Frank Sutton plays Marco. If, like me, you know him mainly as Sergeant Carter in Gomer Pyle, his dramatic acting in this and other Naked City episodes will amaze you.)

“We are all responsible for each other,” is what Adam tells Libby after the Joseph Creeley case goes to the jury. She doubts whether she could handle the responsibility of deciding a man’s fate, but Adam argues that judging and being judged is part of our human compact.

5. There are no easy answers—and sometimes no answers at all.

Naked City doesn’t paint criminals as monsters, but it does not downplay crime’s horror. When violence erupts on this show, it is usually sudden and brutal.

The 1962 episode “A Case Study of Two Savages” has a particularly high body count. Arkansas’ Ansel Boake (Rip Torn) arrives in New York with his teenage bride and begins shooting everyone who gets in his way. This includes Detective Frank Arcaro, who merely stops to tell the youth that his license plate is loose.

This gun store owner, relishing Ansel's country bumpkin humor, has only a few seconds left to live.

This gun store owner, relishing Ansel’s country bumpkin humor, has only a few seconds left to live.

A convalescing Arcaro tells Adam to find out why the young man shot him. When police finally catch up with Ansel and kill him during a bank robbery, his wife (Tuesday Weld) can’t offer much of an answer.

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“Just for the hell of it, I guess,” she says.

Likewise, Jimmy Halloran comes up short during the first-season episode “Burst of Passion,” which concerns the kind of mass shooting we see all too often today. Jimmy’s friendly, church-going neighbor snaps, embarking on a shooting rampage. Witnesses debate the killer’s mental state, while Jimmy tracks the man down to the deserted off-season environs of Coney Island. (I love the scenery in this one.)

Halloran ends up shooting his neighbor; before dying, the man rambles semi-coherently about mankind’s failures and the need to begin again.

We’re left with narrator’s observation that sometimes there are no answers, at least not comforting ones.

We get no answers in the Joseph Creeley case, either.

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After the jury gets the case, Adam and Libby leave it and the New York Criminal Court Building behind. Due to his faith in the jury system, Adam conveys a renewed sense of peace.

My first reaction on watching this episode was annoyance that we didn’t learn the jury’s decision. Then I realized that this story’s thorny moral dilemma doesn’t lend itself to a simple answer—it is something viewers need to think through for themselves.

In the world of Naked City, asking questions is more important than finding answers.

Read more entries from the Classic TV Detectives Blogathon.

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Alice: An Appreciation

“They gave me funny things to do, and I did them funny. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”—Ann B. Davis
(May 3, 1926-June 1, 2014)

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This review is part of the Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to check out this blogathon's complete schedule.

This review is part of the Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to check out this blogathon’s complete schedule.

As a mental exercise, try to imagine someone other than Robert Reed and Florence Henderson playing The Brady Bunch’s parents. As important as those actors were to the show’s success, many others could have probably managed a respectable “wise father” or “concerned mother” role.

Now, picture other children replacing the familiar Brady kids. As appealing as the entire juvenile cast was, 1970s casting agents could surely have supplied other hunky teen boys and All-American girls with “hair of gold” to play what were basically average kids.

It is much harder to envision anyone other than Ann B. Davis wearing Alice Nelson’s blue uniform. She was as central to The Brady Bunch as she was on the show’s opening-titles grid.

Ann B. Davis was irreplaceable.

That’s what made her passing such sad news, even though she had lived a full and seemingly happy, spiritually fulfilled 88 years.

Overnight Success

Few actors have kept their private lives as private as Davis did. All her obituaries outline the same basic facts: She was born in Schenectady, New York, and raised in Erie, Pa. As a child, she caught the performing bug while putting on shows with her twin sister Harriet. Her mother was an amateur actor, and her older brother was a professional dancer who would appear on Broadway. Ann enrolled at the University of Michigan with plans to be a doctor, but soon switched her focus to acting. After graduating and heading to California in 1948, she did theater and nightclub work until getting her big break.

That was her supporting role as Schultzy on The Bob Cummings Show (Love That Bob), for which she would win two Emmys. The show ran from 1955 to 1959 and was a major ratings success, and Davis’ role as Cummings’ lovelorn, plain-Jane assistant brought her fame.

“I was an overnight success at 28,” she said in a 1989 interview. “I began to understand the power of TV. Within five weeks–and I was playing a small part, a supporting part–after the series went on the air I was recognized on the street wherever I went. Very scary!”

The show was never widely syndicated, so it is unfamiliar to most people my age and younger.

As you can see from this clip, Schultzy shares certain qualities with Alice Nelson and other classic TV “old maids,” such as Sally Rogers and Jane Hathaway—a lack of feminine graces combined with desperate, unfulfilled man-hungriness.

All About Alice

As Alice, Davis delivered many self-deprecating punchlines. As a kid, I saw Alice as she presented herself to the audience—plain, overweight, old. Having reached Alice’s age myself, I see things differently, of course, and wonder how Davis felt about her portrayal.

She claimed to take it in stride.

“I know at least a couple hundred glamour gals who are starving in this town. I’d rather be myself and eating,” she said.

Her Brady Bunch role combined a poor self-image and an unflattering costume with corny jokes and broad physical humor. If everyone was doing the hula, Alice would be throwing her back out. If a bucket of paint appeared, Alice would be stepping in it. If someone built a dunk tank in the back yard, Alice was getting wet.

It all added up to a role many actors would have hated. Indeed, Davis’ co-star Robert Reed, went nearly mad with disgust over the show’s scripts. He would fire off multi-page memos to producers about the show’s implausibilities, many of which involved Alice. “Even a laugh machine would balk,” he wrote about typical tag scene.

Davis was different. Like Alice delighting in the dunk tank, she threw herself into her role and made the best of it.

In Growing Up Brady, Barry Williams quotes Producer Lloyd Schwartz on the difference between Davis and Reed: “She’d say, ‘A lot of people worked very hard on this, and maybe it isn’t great, but if that’s the case, they really need me to make it work.’ Opposite attitudes.”

In fact, Davis saw Alice’s wacky predicaments as opportunities for her to shine comedically.

And while she didn’t take herself too seriously, she cared enough about her role to create a mental backstory for her character that explains Alice’s single-minded devotion to the Brady family.

In the post-Brady years, the show wasn’t a millstone around Davis’ neck as it was for so many of her co-stars. Shortly after it ended, she became a born-again Christian and curtailed her show business career.

“It’s amazing, but at the age of 47 my life suddenly got to the good part,” she told Australia’s Courier-Mail in 1989. “I thought I had had the good part, but it’s as if the Lord had said, ‘Let’s give this kid everything the world has to offer, then make her a better offer and see what happens.’ Am I happy? Oh, boy!”

She spent many years living in an Episcopalian religious community, first in Denver and then in Ambridge. Pa. She worked with a mission helping homeless people and traveled the country talking to church groups. Eventually, she settled in San Antonio, Texas, with retired Episcopal bishop William Frey and his family.

A born trouper, she never completely gave up acting; she did a great deal of regional theater and showed up for almost every Brady reunion. (One critic, panning A Very Brady Christmas, called Alice “the only real-looking character in the whole fairy story.”)

She also compiled a Brady Bunch cookbook in 1994, while admitting that cooking and child care were not really part of her skill set.

She looked back on her Brady experience with fondness.

“Wouldn’t we all love to have belonged to a perfect family, with brothers and sisters to lean on and where every problem is solved in 23 minutes?” she said.

(And it’s not as though she were incapable of looking back on past work with a critical eye. Speaking of the Cummings show, she once told The Times of London: “Comedy like that gets dated pretty fast, especially since it’s anti-feminist.”)

Lovable

In the early 1990s, when Brady nostalgia was at its height, many experts advanced theories about the show’s appeal to Generation X. My college sociology textbook even explored the subject.

To me, the answer has always been simple: Creator Sherwood Schwartz created a world as a child would wish it to be—a world of good-natured siblings, goofy fun, and people who rally around to solve your every problem.

Blogger Hank Stuever summed it up beautifully in The Washington Post this week, but I disagree with his assertion about Alice’s role in this child-centered utopia: “The entire premise of the show seemed to acknowledge, at least in subtext, that Alice was filling the need that Carol Brady could not fill. It’s the great unspoken truth of The Brady Bunch, particularly in retrospect: Ann B. Davis was the better mother.”

From my perspective, Mike and Carol were definitely the parents, but Alice was something even better: A cross between an adult and a friend. She would join in your sack race, bake your cookies, dress up as a pilgrim for your home movie, and clean your room—and she would do it all with a smile.

Everyone has parents, but a child can only dream of having an Alice.

And no one but Ann B. Davis could have brought this dream to life in such an endearing way.

“I think I’m lovable,” she once said. “That’s the gift God gave me.”

Lovable. And irreplaceable.

Some Alice Favorites

I must admit that the Alice-centric episodes of The Brady Bunch don’t rank among my favorites. Playing tough “Sergeant Emma” was probably fun for Davis, but none of the Brady double-role episodes work for me. And “Alice’s September Song,” about Alice’s shady old flame Mark Millard, bored me as a child and saddens me now.

I much prefer Alice as a cheerful supporting presence in a typical episode. Here are two quintessential Alice moments, when she gets involved with the kids and pays the price with her dignity.

Alice could be supportive as well as silly. My favorite Alice moment, by far, is her scene with Jan in “Lost Locket, Found Locket.”

I do like getting to see a different side of Alice now and then, such as when she turns on the charm for a surprisingly lascivious Jackie Coogan.

Other Ann B. Davis Sightings

In the late 1970s, Davis did some commercials that played on her Brady image (although, in the second example, they use the name of her Bob Cummings Show character).

Davis had a few small film roles in the 1960s. You can catch a glimpse of her here in the Rock Hudson-Doris Day film Lover Come Back.

Did any single 1960s TV stars NOT appear on The Dating Game? This is cringe-worthy viewing, but Davis is a good sport.

You can see more of Ann B. Davis in action during MeTV’s 3-hour tribute marathon this Sunday, June 8, at 12 p.m. EDT.

The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Family Affair Connections, Part 1

Source: IMDb.com

John Williams and Alfred Hitchcock. Source: IMDb.com

What connections can possibly exist between the sugary 1960s sitcom Family Affair and TV’s two creepiest anthology programs? Television actors made the rounds in the 1950s and 1960s, so perhaps its not surprising that both of Family Affair‘s lead actors and many of its recurring guest stars show up in these anthology shows. (It probably helped that both the Hitchcock show and Family Affair made good use of aging British actors.) It’s a treat, though, to see them in roles so different from the ones I spotlight each week in my Family Affair series.

I’d originally planned this post for October 2, the broadcast anniversary for both Alfred Hitchcock Presents (which debuted in 1955) and The Twilight Zone (which aired its first episode four years later). I found so many interesting connections, however, that this post took longer to prepare than I’d anticipated. Its length also required breaking it into two parts.

John Williams

John Williams is the strongest link between Family Affair and the world of Alfred Hitchcock. Williams played Nigel French in nine first-season Family Affair episodes, while Sebastian Cabot recovered from an illness. His most famous career role, however, was Chief Inspector Hubbard in Hitchcock’s film Dial M for Murder. (He originated the role on Broadway and earned a Tony award for his performance.) He also appeared in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief.

Williams was obviously a Hitchcock favorite–he would appear in no fewer than 10 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The three-part episode “I Killed the Count” from Season 2 finds Williams in his most characteristic role as a stuffy Scotland Yard inspector. His character uncovers no shortage of suspects in a tangled murder case. The fun is in watching his exasperation build as “I killed the count” becomes an “I am Spartacus”-style refrain among people eager to confess.

(One of the suspects is played by Alan Napier, who appeared in a third-season Family Affair episode but is best known as Alfred from TV’s Batman. Nora Marlowe also has a small role in Part 3 of “I Killed the Count.” She appeared in four Family Affair episodes, as various nanny friends of Giles French. Her most memorable TV role was Flossie Brimmer on The Waltons.)

Parts two and three of “I Killed the Count” are also on Youtube and available through Netflix.

In another second-season episode, “Wet Saturday,” criminals get the best of Williams. If you’ve ever longed to see Nigel French get slapped around, this is the episode for you. Also interesting is the happy epilogue that Hitchcock tacked on in his closing comments, to counteract the downbeat on-screen ending.

Kathryn Givney, who plays the murderer's mother in this episode, was Mrs. Allenby in the memorable first-season Family Affair episode "The Thursday Man."

Kathryn Givney, who plays the murderer’s mother in this episode, was Mrs. Allenby in the memorable first-season Family Affair episode “The Thursday Man.”

Williams also made one appearance on The Twilight Zone, in an hour-long episode called “The Bard.” This isn’t a great episode; it strives too hard for hipness as it satirizes TV hackery. Williams’ turn as William Shakespeare is amusing, though. Who else could imbue the words Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with so much contempt merely by enunciating each consonant deliberately? The rest of the cast provides plenty of interest, too. It includes future movie star Burt Reynolds and future Dyna Girl Judy Strangis.

Brian Keith

Brian Keith never appeared on The Twilight Zone, but he did appear on five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (including one after the show’s 1962 expansion and re-titling as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour). The most interesting for Family Affair fans is probably “Cell 227,” in which Keith portrays a condemned prisoner. The script is a bit preachy and lacks the typical Hitchcock atmosphere, though the ending provides a suitably grim “gotcha.” Keith gives his usual strong performance, and it’s a major departure from Uncle Bill.

Liam Sullivan, who appeared in one Season Three episode of Family Affair, plays a priest here. Frank Nelson, an annoying neighbor in two memorable Family Affair episodes (“Mrs. Beasley, Where Are You?” and “Ballerina Buffy”), has a more sympathetic role as a lawyer fighting to save Keith’s character.

Keith himself plays a crusading lawyer in “The Test.” His courtroom tactics are questionable, but there’s a method to his madness. This one has a thought-provoking, ambiguous ending.

Sebastian Cabot

Sebastian Cabot appears in the first-season Twilight Zone episode “Nice Place to Visit.” As the spiritual guide of a recently deceased thug, he’s Giles-French-like throughout most of the episode. The ending twist, while predictable, shows him in a very different light.

Cabot also appeared in one Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, Season One’s “A Bullet for Baldwin.” He’s Baldwin, and the episode’s opening events suggest that Cabot’s appearance will be brief. As you might expect on this show, things are more complicated than they seem.

(An extra treat for me in this episode is the presence of John Qualen, who played Earl Williams in my very favorite movie, His Girl Friday. Too bad he never appeared on Family Affair.)

Ida Lupino

Legendary actress and director Ida Lupino appeared as French’s old flame Maudie Marchwood in two Family Affair episodes. She appeared in one Twilight Zone episode, Season One’s “Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine.” The paranormal twist in this one comes too late to add much interest to the story of a fading actress living in the past. Lupino is always interesting, but this script doesn’t do her any favors; it reads like her character is 70, while Lupino was just over 40 when this aired!

(Lupino directed the much better Twilight Zone episode “The Masks.”)

Alice Frost, who appeared in the memorable Family Affair episode “The Candy Striper,” also appears here and gets to do some good screaming.

Paul Hartman

A first-season Family Affair guest star, Hartman appeared on three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

You remember him--he sold Buffy and Jody a broken down horse.

You remember him–he sold Buffy and Jody a broken down horse.

On The Twilight Zone, he played a police sergeant in the second-season episode “Back There,” a time-travel yarn involving Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Nora Marlowe shows up again here. (Also of interest to classic TV fans: This episode stars Russell Johnson, the professor from Gilligan’s Island.)

The full episode doesn’t seem to be on Youtube, but you can watch it through Netflix or Amazon Prime Instant Video.

Louise Latham

Louise Latham launched her screen career in Hitchcock’s Marnie as the title character’s mother.

On Family Affair, of course, she was Aunt Fran--a character who cast a longer shadow than her three appearances would suggest.

On Family Affair, of course, she was Aunt Fran–a character who cast a longer shadow than her three appearances would suggest.

She made one appearance on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and it was a good one. “An Unlocked Window” has everything–a spooky house, a violent storm, and a serial killer on the loose. Latham gives a showy performance as a housekeeper who progresses from merely annoying to drunken and deranged. The episode’s ending doesn’t completely surprise, but it does pack a punch. (Bonus for my fellow cat lovers: A nice-looking tabby gets plenty of screen time.)

Another connection involving this episode: Stanley Cortez served as director of photography here, as well as on the first two episodes of Family Affair. A veteran cinematographer, Cortez had worked on such movies as The Magnificent Ambersons and Night of the Hunter.

Heather Angel

Surprisingly, Heather Angel never appeared on the Hitchcock series. She would have been well suited for various British dowager parts, and she did have small parts in two Hitchcock films, Suspicion and Lifeboat.

On Family Affair, Angel played Miss Faversham in a whopping 18 episodes.

On Family Affair, Angel played Miss Faversham in a whopping 18 episodes–many more than any other recurring cast member.

Other Posts You Might Enjoy:

Leave It to Beaver: A Father’s Journey

Room 222 Call Sheet: A Day in the Life of a 1970s Sitcom

Assorted Ephemera: My Three Sons Coloring Book (1971)

Embarrassing Treasures Field Trip: The Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention 2013

They had me at Margaret O’Brien.

I don’t remember what made me browse the web site for the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention earlier this year, but as soon as I saw Margaret O’Brien on the celebrity list, I ordered my tickets.

MANC takes place each fall in Baltimore. For three days, celebrities make themselves available for autograph signings and Q&A sessions; experts hold seminars on old-time radio, classic television, and classic movie topics; vendors sell movie posters, books, and other collectibles; and classic screen performances play in the Movie Room.

I’ve thought about attending before (and I really wish I’d attended in 2009, when Johnny Whitaker and one-time Family Affair guest star Lee Meriwether were guests). The chance to see my favorite child star in person stirred me into seizing the moment. It’s a sad reality that few golden-age stars remain with us, and we lose more every year.

This was the first nostalgia convention I’ve attended, and what follows is a brief, impressionistic review. Unfortunately, it lacks photos—I forgot to pack my camera, and my iPhone images didn’t turn out well.

Educational Sessions

Mornings at MANC are devoted to presentations on vintage entertainment topics. The presenters are people who’ve invested enormous time into learning about their subject. John C. Abbott, for instance, has produced an exhaustive three-volume work called The Who is Johnny Dollar? Matter about radio’s famous insurance investigator. He’s analyzed not only the remaining recorded episodes but those that exist only in script form. He can tell you everything from Johnny’s address to how many times he’s been shot.

Sally Stephens talked about Gracie Allen’s 1940 run for the presidency, a months-long joke that played out on several radio shows and in live appearances. Stephens effectively integrated radio clips into her presentation, which made her topic come alive.

Joanna Wilson gave a great presentation on TV adaptions of A Christmas Carol. I’d been eagerly anticipating this presentation for two reasons:

  • I love TV Christmas specials and episodes.
  • Wilson is a fellow Classic TV Blog Association member, and I hoped to meet her and to purchase her book, ‘Tis the Season TV.

Wilson’s presentation didn’t disappoint–her passion for her subject matter really came through, and the audience responded with similar enthusiasm. I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of straight A Christmas Carol adaptations. (What does it say about me that my favorite theatrical version features the Muppets?) I still enjoyed learning about all the versions TV has produced, and I was glad that Wilson touched on many of my favorite Dickens-influenced TV episodes, including ones from The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, The Avengers, and Family Ties.

It was fun to meet another blogger, and I’m enjoying Wilson’s book, which I highly recommend to all Christmas TV fans.

(Be sure to read her convention recap, too–it has pictures!)

Author Gene Blottner did a presentation on film noir star Audrey Totter and made good use of clips from Totter’s career.

Garyn Roberts, a noted Ray Bradbury scholar, hosted a celebration of the author and gave another talk about Dick Tracy in popular culture.

Celebrity Appearances

As Ed Asner walked into his Q&A session, his cell phone rang. Nodding to the audience, he quipped, “It’s for you.”

This was the perfect introduction for Asner, who was as gruff, unfiltered, and entertaining as you would expect. He had high praise for many of his former co-stars, especially Ted Knight from The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Nancy Marchand from Lou Grant. (He also had high praise for Marchand’s legs.) 

Johnny Crawford from The Rifleman appeared on a panel with Jeff Connors, real-life son of Rifleman star Chuck Connors. Both men recalled the elder Connors with affection. Crawford said that Connors was protective toward him on the set; no director who treated Crawford unkindly would continue working on the show.

Crawford reminisced about some of his favorite guest stars on the show, including John Anderson and Royal Dano. He especially enjoyed working with two-time guest star Sammy Davis Jr., who loved Westerns.

His favorite episodes from the show are “The Pet” and “The Sharpshooter.” (Sam Peckinpah wrote the latter’s script.)

All the talk about the show’s warm father-son dynamic inspired me to make The Rifleman a regular part of my Me-TV viewing.

Crawford also talked his experiences as a first-season Mouseketeer and joked about his crush on Karen, which Cubby thwarted.

Julie Newmar shared a Q&A session with Elizabeth Shepherd, a British actress best known for her role in 1964’s The Tomb of Ligeia, as well as her status as The Avengers‘ first Emma Peel. (Producers quickly replaced her with Diana Rigg, and the scenes that Shepherd shot for the show no longer exist.)

Newmar and Shepherd made an interesting study in contrasts. Newmar was expansive, dramatic, and occasionally random. (She sometimes interrupted Shepherd to ask her an off-the-wall question.) Shepherd was down-to-earth and good at telling stories, as when she described her perilous encounters with trained ravens during the filming of The Omen II.

Newmar said her ballet background gave her the cat-like physique that served her well in her famous Batman role. Her most challenging role was on the short-lived series My Living Doll because it was difficult to find the humanity in her robot character.

An experienced Shakespearean stage actress, Shepherd made an interesting point about theater being a burgeoning new field to the Elizabethans, as social media is to us today. She treated the MANC audience to an excellent dramatic recitation from Shakespeare.

(Note to the loud talker behind me who rarely shut his mouth throughout the Newmar and Shepherd Q&A: Not cool. Seriously. When everyone around you is glaring, it’s time to shut up.)

Margaret O’Brien exuded graciousness throughout her presentation.

She had good things to say about nearly everyone she worked with, from Charles Laughton (“He was wonderful”) to Lionel Barrymore (“He was almost like a grandfather”) to Judy Garland (“She loved children”).

She even had a good relationship with studio head Louis B. Mayer, who wanted to marry her mother, glamorous flamenco dancer Gladys Flores.

O’Brien talked again and again about the supportive, protective role her mother played in her life. Flores made sure that O’Brien got the salary she deserved for Meet Me in Saint Louis. She kept O’Brien in line during the perilous teenage years, once busting her at a nightclub after she sneaked out with Natalie Wood. She kept the child-hating Wallace Beery from stealing O’Brien’s hot lunch on the set of Bad Bascomb. (Beery seemed to be the only person in Hollywood to earn O’Brien’s ire.)

It’s apparent that her mother’s influence kept O’Brien from the pitfalls of child stardom and enabled her to simply enjoy the movie-making process.

O’Brien, who traveled to Japan in 1952 to make the movie Girls Hand in Hand, talked about the importance of travel and getting to know people from other cultures. Again, she praised the influence of her mother, who served as her role model as a strong, independent woman.

“I never feel that I can’t do something,” O’Brien said.

Autographs and Vendors

The welcoming letter in the convention program noted that some people attend only to collect autographs, while skipping all the sessions. I took the opposite approach. I’ve never been an autograph collector, and I feel awkward approaching celebrities–there’s nothing that I could say that they haven’t heard thousands of times. MANC attracts a knowledgeable crowd, so audience members covered most of the questions I would have asked during the Q&A sessions. (I did hope to ask Robert Loggia about his work with Brian Keith on Disney’s Elfego Baca, but Loggia is in frail health, and I couldn’t bring myself to bother him.)

For those who do want to collect autographs, MANC is ideal. Celebrities are available for long periods throughout the three-day conference, so lines stay short, and fans have time to chat with their favorite stars.

Vendor tables lined the main hallway leading to the seminar room. When I didn’t see anything I wanted there, I figured the spending money I brought with me was safe. On the second day, I realized that many more vendors were offering their wares on another floor. I picked up a few vintage books and magazines and a set of Dr. Doolittle paper dolls. I also bought several current books, including books about Peggy Ann Garner and 1950s live television by author Sandra Grabman, who attended the convention.

My only regret was that I didn’t find any good games for future Spin Again Sunday posts.

My overall experience at MANC was wonderful, and I would highly recommend it to all fans of vintage entertainment. The $15-a-day admission price is a small price to pay for seeing your favorite stars in person and hearing from experts on interesting topics. I hope to go again in coming years. (I definitely will if Kathy Garver appears–I’m not missing another Family Affair star!)

My Five Favorite…Gunsmoke Radio Episodes

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Over the next month, I will be honoring the premiere anniversaries of many classic TV shows. Check back frequently for episode recaps, fan magazine articles, special editions of Spin Again Sunday, and more. I will also be posting unique content on Facebook and Instagram.

The classic Western Gunsmoke launched its 20-year TV run on September 10, 1955. To observe its anniversary, I’m cheating a bit and focusing on the radio version that pre-dated it. I always enjoyed TV’s Gunsmoke, which I discovered while in my teens. (Mostly, I enjoyed watching for little shippy moments between Matt and Kitty.) The radio version, though, blows me away with its darker Western vision. Bill Conrad conveys an especially wide range of emotion as Matt Dillon.

I’m also cheating a bit in naming favorite episodes because I haven’t listened to the entire radio run. (I dread the day when I have no new episodes left to discover.) Furthermore, I love so many episodes that my “favorites” list could change from day to day. These five episodes are excellent, though, and each evokes a different mood.

1. “Home Surgery,” September 13, 1952

“I rolled a smoke and looked out across the flat distances of the prairie. And I wondered how anyone could survive in all that emptiness.”

When Matt and Chester come upon an isolated homesteader suffering from blood poisoning, Matt takes desperate measures to try to save him. Conrad’s performance is appropriately tortured, especially in the scene just following surgery.

2. “Kitty,” November 29, 1952:

“She was like a seventeen-year-old on her first date. She was like all the women you’d ever known or loved–soft and innocent.”

Matt asks Kitty to be his date at a benefit for the school. She appreciates the problems this will cause, if he doesn’t. This episode gives us a giddy and romantic side of Matt. He even sings at one point!

3. “There Never Was a Horse,” September 19, 1953:

“I sure don’t like the idea of dying…but I got over being afraid of it a long time ago.”

A gun-fighter rides into town, bent on challenging the marshal. Matt’s not sure that he can win a confrontation, so Conrad’s performance is a believable mix of vulnerability and strength.

4. “Fawn,” September 26, 1953:

“I never heard of sending a woman to Dodge, for her to be better off.”

A woman held captive by the Cheyenne for 10 years gets her freedom and travels to Dodge to wait for her husband. The daughter she had in captivity is with her, and they face hostility from many quarters. This episode has a good message, a sweet ending, and a nice supporting performance by John Dehner. It’s also a radio Gunsmoke rarity–an episode with no deaths.

You may remember Helen Kleeb, who plays the former captive, as Mamie Baldwin from The Waltons. Mamie was the darker-haired Baldwin sister who wasn’t obsessed with Ashley Longworth.

5. “Marshal Proudfoot,” July 20, 1958:

“Chester bordered on being ignorant, I think. I can’t imagine how he ever got to be a marshal.”

Chester’s father shows up looking his son, whose letters home have exaggerated his position in Dodge. This is a hilarious outing. (For personal reasons, I also like the PSA that mentions the land-grant act.)

Bonus Feature

Turning back to the the TV show, I present this article about James Arness from TV Star Parade, May 1963. As fan magazine stories go, it’s a dramatic one, and it would have sad echoes–Arness’ first wife later died of a drug overdose, as did his daughter.

Other posts you might enjoy:

Those Magnificent Cats in Their Flying Machines

A Snapped-Worthy 1920s True Story

CSI, 1940s Style

Weird Words of Wisdom: Prize Pigs in the Cafeteria Edition

“Don’t show up looking like a beatnik!”–Gay Head

That Freshman Feeling by Judith Unger Scott, 1960
Hi There, High School by Gay Head, 1953 (1972 printing)

About These Books: In honor of back-to-school season, I present these two books about fitting in and standing out as a new high school freshman. Each book’s cover artwork accurately represents the tone its author takes toward readers.

that freshman feeling

These teens are approaching their new school with confidence and just a touch of awe.

hi there high school

This pair is having a nervous breakdown in the high school hallway.

Scott’s book, published for the library market, provides sensible advice about career planning, study habits, and friendship.

The Head tome, a Scholastic Book Club selection, doesn’t trust its readers to walk down the hall properly or to eat ice cream without plunging into the dish head-first.

Guess which book we’ll be concentrating on today?

(Adding to the Head book’s weirdness is its editors’ failure to update it after 20 years. I wonder what 1970s teens made of its references to jalopies, Nat King Cole, fountain pens, dance bands, and Bob Hope.)

Bad Examples

To show us what not to do in any situation, Head invents a gaggle of social misfits.

Consider, for example, the way these “traffigoons” handle something as simple as walking down the hall:

  • Breezy Jones “doesn’t mind bumping into people. He’s big and tough, and he acts as if it’s the Other Person’s fault for getting in the way.”
  • Buzz Newton “weaves in and out of traffic, whoo-whooing like a train whistle.”
  • Jessie James elbows people and bangs doors in their faces. “Bang-Bang Jessie. Still playing Wild West, when the rest have put away their pistols.”
  • Gertrude Gates “keeps everybody guessing, herself included,” by making sudden stops.

What’s in Jessie James’ messy locker? “Two library books; six textbooks containing notes, pictures, and papers; three ancient and tattered copies of the school paper; two fountain pen tops, no bottoms; one bottle of ink, no stopper; a stack of notebook paper splotched with ink; two and one half pencils; an old notebook cover; a battered violin case containing a wadded-up sweater and a worn-out gym shoe; a couple of smashed ping-pong balls; one glove; a cracked bottle of nail polish; a comb with three teeth in it; four dirty handkerchiefs; a stale sandwich and a banana peeling from yesterday’s lunch.” Except for the fountain pens, ink, and handkerchiefs, this sounds a lot like my car.

Questions that Head suggests students ask about their new school: “Must you have a school permit to park your bike or jalopy in the school parking lots? Is it all right for boys to wear jeans or dungarees? Shirts without neckties? May girls come to school with their hair in curlers?”

Fashion Tips

“A boy’s pressed suit and clean shirt, with harmonizing tie and socks, will fetch up more favorable comments than the latest craze in wild combinations.”

“One suit—plus changes of sweaters and shirts—equals many costumes. One dress with different accessories (collar, scarf, belt, or jewelry) can double for school and dates. Team up your wardrobe so that it works as smoothly as a well-trained backfield. You’re calling signals!”

More Wisdom from Hi There, High School

“The sophomore wags who try to sell you locker tickets, elevator permits, and season passes to the swimming pool are not to be trusted. But if you fall for one of their gags, take it with a grin. Your fun will come next year!”

“You’ll really be in the swing of things at Central High this year if you start by learning all you can about your school.” She recommends boning up on school history and tradition. That stuff actually interested me when I was in high school, but somehow my knowledge didn’t catapult me into popularity.

“Don’t make the cafeteria a circus ring for showing off some prize pig tricks!” Are there prize pigs in the circus? Sounds more like the county fair.

“Eat ice cream a spoonful at a time. Licking and lapping are kittenish tricks.”

On dance conversation: “If you converse, talk about the music and your favorite dance bands or vocalists, or ask your partner a leading question about his favorite sports, entertainment, or hobbies. This is neither the time nor place to display your knowledge of atomic energy, guided missiles, or supersonic speed.”

“Constipation, unless due to organic causes, can be controlled by proper diet. Don’t get the pill habit!

“Don’t wear your feelings on the outside. If they stick out like a porcupine’s needles, they’re going to bump into plenty of trouble.”

“A shrill voice grates on the ears. A squeaky voice makes everything you say sound silly. A guttural voice creates the impression of harshness. A whiny voice sounds ill-humored. A booming voice alienates listeners. A monotone puts them to sleep.” Sheesh–you can’t win here.

“Are you a Mumbler, a Word-Swallower, a Word-Mixer? You may be as wise as Einstein or as “wisecrack” as Bob Hope, but people won’t listen to your witticisms unless they can understand what you say.”

“Imagine that it’s New Year’s Eve in the year 1999! In a few minutes, the bells will ring and the year 2000 A.D. will be ushered in. That will be a big event in your lives, for most of you will be alive to celebrate the beginning of the new century. You’ll be the parents or grandparents, then, shocked (no doubt!) about the ‘wild ways’ of teen-agers. You’ll be running the factories, the stores, and the offices. Some of you will be mayors, governors, and senators. One of you may be the President!”

Wisdom from That Freshman Feeling

“If your friendliness and good manners extend only to a small, accepted social group, you’re a snob! ‘Wait a minute,’ you may say, ‘am I supposed to make friends with a collection of all the odd characters?’ No, of course not. But you shouldn’t ignore or reject them.”

“Delicious stuff to eat makes any party a howling success.”

“Every few years a new fad hits the high school. For no reason at all—it seems to come out of the atmosphere—the boys develop a passion for red sweaters or the girls wear green nail polish. Next year it may be crazy haircuts or dinky hats.” Dinky hats seem to be berets. See, for instance, this wonderful headline from 1931–“Gay berets sit atop male heads: Dinky hats in wild colors rage at Palm Beach.”

“In some families, a telephone timing system is worked out and it can be very successful for young people and grownups alike. A ten-minute timer is purchased and set at the beginning of every telephone conversation. When it goes off, the talk is terminated and the party cannot be re-called for at least a half hour.”

“Some girls whose goal is to be a wife and mother use these inherent talents in their job selection. They prepare themselves for a job that will make them more efficient in homemaking. For instance, the girl who has the money and ability to go on to college may study to be a home economist, or she may enter a hospital for nurse’s training.”

About the Authors: The semi-mythical Gay Head is an old friend of this blog. Scott was one of many writers who specialized in advice books for teenagers. Hers have especially nice titles, including Lessons in Loveliness, Pattern for Personality, The Art of Being a Girl, and The Bride Looks Ahead. According to her dust jacket bio, she also hosted a radio show for teenagers and “conducted classes in personality, beauty, and manners.” She once worked for Ladies Home Journal, a launching pad for many of our Weird Words of Wisdom authors. Scott died in 2001.

Other Weird Words of Wisdom posts you might enjoy:

Speak Softly and Carry a Hot Breakfast Edition

Where the Boys Are (You’d Better Wear a Skirt) Edition

Betty Betz and Vintage Teen Etiquette That Rhymes Edition

Old-Time Radio Playlist: Vacation, Part 2

Labor Day has come and gone, but it’s not too late to take a vacation over the old-time radio airwaves. Fairfield_Beach_Connecticut_Postcard_1930s_or_1940s

“A Vacation on the Prison Farm”
Life of Riley, June 26, 1948


“What would a bellhop want with a gun?”
Story: Cash-strapped Riley has a brilliant idea for a cheap vacation—swapping homes with a friend from out of town. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite grasp that his friend is caretaker of a prison farm.
Destination: Escudero State Prison Farm.
Wish You Were There? You’ll have to dodge some bullets, but this premise is funny enough to make it worth it.

“Vacation Time”
My Favorite Husband, April 29, 1949


“Travel is great. I wouldn’t go anywhere without it.”
About My Favorite Husband: Lucille Ball and Richard Denning starred in this 1948-1951 comedy about a happily married young couple. Three of the show’s writers–Bob Carroll Jr., Madelyn Pugh, and Jess Oppenheimer—later helped to adapt the program into the TV show I Love Lucy.
Story: With different ideas about the ideal vacation, Liz and George agree to a trial run of George’s plan—camping in a trailer.
Destination: Goose Grease Lake, but they don’t quite make it.
Wish You Were There? If you enjoy the Lucille Ball movie The Long, Long Trailer, you’ll probably enjoy this, too.

“The Goosby Vacation Cottage”
The Bickersons, July 10, 1951


“I’m never able to sleep in a strange place.”
About The BickersonsDon Ameche and Frances Langford played battling John and Blanche Bickerson in the mid-1940s on the shows Drene Time, The Old Gold Hour, and The Charlie McCarthy Show. In the summer of 1951, Langford returned to the air as Blanche, with Lew Parker playing John. You probably remember Parker from his role as Ann Marie’s father on That Girl.
Story: Blanche tries to manipulate John into a rural getaway.
Destination: A vacation cottage in the country.
Wish You Were There? Nah…you’ll have a more peaceful time staying home with the cat, Nature Boy.

“Hawaiian Vacation Slogan Contest”
Duffy’s Tavern, December 28, 1951


“I like Honolulu because when I land on the island of Honolulu, I hope I land a honey that’s a lulu.”
About Duffy’s Tavern: This popular show aired for 10 years beginning in 1941; this is, in fact, its final radio episode.  Ed Gardner, who plays Archie, helped to create the series.
Story: Archie wins a slogan contest–a kiddie slogan contest.
Destination: Hawaii, but only in Archie’s dreams.
Wish You Were There? Of course–and you have a better chance of getting there than Archie does.

“Having a Horrible Time”
CBS Radio Mystery Theater, August 21, 1974


“We believe in making every minute count.”
Story: Amy, who helped convict a drug kingpin and has been getting death threats ever since, makes the brilliant decision to vacation at a “swinging singles” resort.
Destination: Tomahawk Tree Lodge in the Poconos.
Notable Performers: Lynn Loring, who plays Amy, grew up playing Patti on Search for Tomorrow, then racked up a variety of TV credits in the 1960s. During that period, her marriage to Roy Thinnes made her a fan-magazine fixture. Tony-winning actress Frances Sternhagen, who plays Lois, has appeared in many movies but is probably best known as Cliff Clavin’s mother from Cheers.
Wish You Were There? Only if you want to spend your vacation worrying about which resort guest is trying to kill you.

Other Old-Time Radio Playlists you might enjoy:

Vacation, Part 1

Summer, Part 1

Summer, Part 2