Friday, April 29, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Some 'Splainin To Do

I had some misgivings about this week's Dance Party. Regular visitors to these pages may recall that I have always disliked puppets and their ilk, dating back from my first childhood viewing of Disney's Pinocchio. You can read all about that here. And when you put human heads on puppet bodies, I'm ready to jump out the window. But the death of this trailblazer last week has encouraged me to, once again, face my fears. First, the obit:

Madelyn (Pugh) Davis


She can be considered a trailblazer, as she opened many doors for female writers in radio and TV. She took advantage of the scarcity of male writers during WWII, hooked up with partner Bob Carroll, Jr., and began a career which lasted over 50 years. For most of that time, her work was inextricably linked to Lucille Ball. She penned Lucy's radio program, My Favorite Husband, and when Ball moved to television, she took Davis and Carroll with her. They wrote or co-wrote all 179 episodes of I Love Lucy, and helped define the "Lucy" character which Ball would play for close to 40 years. In the writers' office, Davis was usually found at the typewriter, while her partners Carroll and producer Jess Oppenheimer would pace the floor, coming up with physical gags for their iconic star. (Reminds me of the picture I often have of the office on The Dick Van Dyke Show, with Rose Marie at the typewriter and Van Dyke and Morey Amsterdam pacing the room or lying on the couch, trying to come up with comic material.) That material was always, for I Love Lucy and all its derivatives, physical shtick rather than comic wordplay; none of Davis's writing can be considered particularly strong, verbally. The premise of Lucy's comedy was always focused on the gag rather than the spoken joke. It was Davis, in fact, who often tried out the ludicrous stunts which would later be handled so well by Lucy. Davis and Carroll wrote for Ball throughout her career; they provided the story for her feature film Yours, Mine, and Ours, as well as material for The Lucy Show, Here's Lucy, and the dismal Life With Lucy, which wrapped up Ball's TV career on a disappointing note.

Along with writing for Lucy, Davis and Carroll spent many years as supervising producers for Alice, winning a Golden Globe for one of their episodes (though nominated several times, they never won their own Emmy). They also wrote for Those Whiting Girls in the 50s (I included a fun clip from that summer replacement series a while back, when Whiting died), The Paul Lynde Show, which lasted one season in the early 70s, and Dorothy, a failed attempt to turn Broadway dynamo Dorothy Loudon into a sitcom star.

This week's Dance Party comes from one of Madelyn Davis's non-Lucy projects which had a bit of traction in the late 60s. Desi Arnaz, still very much a part of Desilu Productions at the time, hired his old writing team to create a series for Eve Arden. Ann Southern was considered as a costar for a time, but her comic timing was considered too similar to Arden's, so Broadway belter Kaye Ballard was hired. The Mothers-In-Law was written very much in the vein of I Love Lucy, with two married couples living in close proximity, and the housewives getting into lots of physical mischief:

Those opening titles make the show look hilarious, right? I remember the show very fondly from my childhood, but having taken a look at it now, the series does not hold up well. Eve Arden had her own strengths as a comic actress, most of them verbal, and the attempt to turn her into a physical comedienne along the lines of Lucy was a mistake. There is some comic chemistry on the show, and Roger C. Carmel was particularly funny as Ballard's cheapskate husband. But the program, though it was nestled cozily on NBC's Sunday schedule between Disney and Bonanza, never really took off. Neither the family audiences for Disney, nor the male audiences for Bonanza, were very interested in this loud, brassy shoutfest. In an effort to save the show from cancellation, the producers asked the cast to forgo the salary bump to which they were contractually entitled for a second season, and Carmel balked. He was replaced by Dick Van Dyke alum Richard Deacon, but the show did not improve and was cancelled after its second season.

The show's two seasons were peppered with musical sequences, the executive producer was Desi Arnaz after all. Ballard and Arden both had musical chops and relished those scenes, though they rarely if ever grew organically out of the plot. There wasn't much reason for two suburban housewives to be putting on shows and skits so often, but that never bothered Arnaz nor his writers. You can see this Dance Party is from Season Two of The Mothers-In-Law, as it included Deacon in the role which was much more memorable when it was played by Carmel. And if you freak out with human heads on puppets, you are not alone.