Thursday, March 20, 2014

"The Clementine Jones Story" - Wagon Train - 1961 (And more TV 1960-1963)



In “The Clementine Jones Story” episode of Wagon Train, Ann Blyth plays the title character, a hard saloon gal about to be run out of town by the zealous Purity League.  Here’s another example of how her voice and movement changes drastically with character.  Her voice drops to a lower, growling register, is hard and barking, her posture alternately the audacious pose of the saloon entertainer of men, and also the stooped, hardworking pioneer woman who knows her way around a frying pan.  She’s morphed into Miss Kitty of Gunsmoke fame, and a careworn woman of the 1860s, vulnerable, but with a spine of steel.

This is our contribution to Aurora's Big Stars on the Small Screen Blogathon.  Please have a look here for the other great blogs participating in this really fun event.

Before we get to the episode, a word from our sponsor.  Just kidding: a few observations on Ann Blyth’s career as it entered the 1960s and her fourth decade as an actress.  On February 8, 1960, Ann was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  It’s on the north side of the 6700 block on Hollywood Boulevard.  This was part of the first huge batch of stars installed in what would become a major tourist attraction in Hollywood many years hence, but at the time did not draw the media fanfare it does today.  At the time, though long-planned, the new Hollywood Walk of Fame had about the same amount of press coverage as the average sidewalk repair.
Ann’s name was included in the jumble of stars from the silent era to the 1950s in tribute to her popularity in the past decade, when she was on the covers of enough movie magazines to choke a horse.  We’ll talk about those down the road.  At the time her star was cemented on the pavement, her film career, unknown to her at the time, had finished three years ago with The Helen Morgan Story (1957).  Television guest roles still brought her work, and because of her selectiveness, quality work.
About ten days after her star was planted, she appeared in a 90-minute TV movie for ABC, a version of The Citadel from the novel by A. J. Cronin about a young Scottish doctor’s conflicts with professional ethics that follows him from a Welsh coal town to the elite Mayfair section of London.  James Donald is the doctor, and Ann Blyth plays his wife, one of only two Americans in the cast, reportedly, “…tackling an English accent and six different hair-dos as the doctor’s wife.”

It was an ambitious undertaking, with a huge cast of 35 speaking roles, 64 actors in all, and 42 different sets to cover a span of years and locations.  The show got a great review from John P. Shanley of The New York Times, with special notice for James Donald and Hugh Griffith.  Ann Blyth he said, “…performed creditably with the rather colorless role of the teacher whom the young doctor married to further his career.”  It would be Ann’s complaint, and as well as other actresses, that substantial roles for women on TV were becoming few and far between. 

It had become the fate of the actress in the 20th century to juggle her presence in the entertainment media if she wanted to work in films or TV.  The following month she appeared as a guest on the Steve Allen late night talk showing singing “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads” from Kismet (1955), which we covered here.  She also performed a comic skit with Steve Allen demonstrating the evolution of a nervous new singer into a confident diva. 
In April she appeared at the Academy Awards, held again at the RKO Pantages Theater, accepting the Documentary Short Subject award from Mitzi Gaynor for the absent winner. 
By August 1960 it was a guest spot on the new (short-lived) TV game show hosted by Ben Alexander, About Faces.  If this sounds like sliding into obscurity, it was also sliding into some needed downtime.  Pregnant with her fourth child (and counting), her baby son was born in December.  The following summer, at 33 years old with four children under seven years old, she still found time for another ride on the Wagon Train.  Her first trip Westward Ho on “The Jenny Tannen Story” in 1959 is covered in this previous post.


“The Clementine Jones Story”, broadcast October 25, 1961 in the fifth season of the show, is a delightful episode, comic and yet at turns poignant with the barely hoped for goal of redemption dangling before three of the West’s misfits: Ann; Dick York, who plays a no-account saddle tramp and unsuccessful bank robber; and young Roger Mobley, an orphan boy with an ugly attitude and a wistful dream of the good life in California.

I like Dick York’s exasperated incredulousness, and he shows himself, paradoxically, a subtle dramatic actor in the serious moments of quiet intensity.

We start comically, when Ann, whom we are told by town mayor Willard Waterman has, “spread more happiness in this town from one end to the other than the whole Purity League,”—and we are left to imagine what kind of happiness—is being forced out by righteous citizens.  They are hustling her out on the next stage.  We see instantly this is a different Ann Blyth as our first image is of her yelling at them in a hard voice.  She faces them down with vaudevillian mellerdramer that they are persecuting her and, “The wound will never, never heal.  I will carry it festering in my bosom to my grave.”
Comedy works best when the actors have a keen sense of irony and a playful attitude toward the ridiculous, which Ann clearly does, and this looks to have been an enjoyable role.  She refuses to leave town until she withdraws her money from the bank, $17.40, and runs into Wagon Train star John McIntire at the bank—just as Dick York’s stumblebum gang is robbing the bank.  It’s an unlucky day for everybody.

Mr. McIntire, trying to help foil the robbery, shoots at the villains, but hits Ann in her bustled bottom.  I love when the grim sheriff enters late on the scene, and we think he is going to investigate and make arrests, but he just comes in asking for a roll of quarters.  He has no idea what has just happened.

The righteous ladies of the Purity League curiously swarm to Ann’s backside to get a peek at the wound.

Dick York escapes and happens upon little Roger Mobley, newly orphaned and alone on the trail in his family’s wagon.  Mr. York makes a proposition that they travel together, because he needs a front and a cover story to escape the sheriff’s posse.  The boy, feisty and shrewd, knows he needs a grownup along if he’s ever going to make it to California, which he idolizes as the promised land where he will be happy.  It’s a business arrangement, with no love lost between them.

Roger Mobley, no stranger to TV westerns, is very good as the aloof and cussedly independent kid, holding his own with the grownups very well.  

John McIntire’s wagon train swings through town, and they join up, and are made to take Ann Blyth with them (once the town doc has gotten through with operating on whatever the Purity League ladies found under her bustle) to get her out of town.  Ann and Dick York exchange embarrassed glances and we see…ah, they know each other from a distant, intimate past.

John McIntire, as we’ve mentioned in our last post on Top O’ the Morning, appeared in a handful of Ann Blyth’s movies, and had a long career as a sinister villain or crusty character.  My favorite is probably his turn as Ann’s nemesis, the oily “Goldtooth” McCarthy in Sally and Saint Anne (1952), which we’ll get to next month.  Wagon Train gave him a starring role at last, as the rough but kindly wagon master after the death of former show star, Ward Bond.

Mr. McIntire will pop in and out of this episode, ultimately taking a hand in their destiny, but most of the interaction is between Ann, Dick York, and young Roger.

We sense almost immediately that they will end up a family, but this is done most entertainingly by avoiding obvious maudlin devices, and instead shows them as three of the most irascible people ever put together.  They spend the entire episode hollering at each other.  It is only through twists and turns that we get their back stories:  Ann and Dick York were lovers, but she thought he abandoned her.  She did not know he had been taken to prison.  He wrote to her and explained, asking her to wait for him.  She never got the letter, and he spent bitter years blaming her for leaving him and taking up the fallen life of a saloon gal.
I love the dialogue.  Ann, sarcastic, throws his insinuations back in his face.  “I ruined my life working in a saloon and you preserved your sainthood in a penitentiary.  That’s just the way a man looks at it…they put me out on the street.  What else could I do?”

The boy, we will eventually learn, never had a family.  His “parents” that died on the trail were a couple who bought him from an orphanage to work as a hired hand, something that was quite common in the nineteenth century.  Even up until the early twentieth century “orphan trains” created a new slave society of children.  This kid has learned to take care of himself, and trusts no one, especially grownups, but his suspicious heart is turned by this unlikely duo, ironically, with comically “tough love.”

When he mouths off to one of them, the other warns him not to be disrespectful to his elders and threatens to smack him.  At one point, Dick York makes as though to whack him, but before he can wind up and release his pitch, Ann slaps the boy across the face, a loud smack courtesy of the sound effects guy.  The sound effects guy gets another starring moment when Ann whacks Dick in the skull with a frying pan.

When she's not hitting people with cookware, Ann turns out to be a pretty good cook, which makes the boy slowly warm up to her.  Dick York, rescues his dog from an iron trap, and both care for Roger when he falls sick.  They turn from footloose refugees on the lam to fearful, heartsick parents before they even realize what is happening to them.  At one point, when he thinks his dog is lost, Roger breaks down and cries from the enormous burdens he’s withstood all his life, and Ann pulls him roughly towards her in a hug.  He struggles, wanting none of this, but she is stronger than him, and he eventually relaxes in her embrace, submitting to being comforted. 

We know they are bonding, but it is in spite of themselves, and manages to avoid mawkish melodramatic clichés.  There are also the running gags throughout the episode about Ann’s sore bum and the pillow she sits on embroidered with: “Home Is Where the Heart Is.”
At one point, when after a quiet family supper and boy plays "Lorena" on his harmonica, Ann tears up with the bitterness of someone whose regrets are draining whatever courage she has left.

Their trek with the wagon train grows tense and a suspenseful climax is reached when the law catches up to them and they must make some hard decisions.  Redemption doesn’t just fall into your lap. 

At the very end of “The Clementine Jones Story”, Ann sings only one line of the Civil War-era tune, “Lorena.”  It is not enough, but it is lovely, and it shows a hint of what will come beginning in the early 1960s for Ann’s evolving career.  Her lovely and powerful soprano voice, too little used in films, would be heard across the country in limited-run regional stage musicals.  They  would provide her an outlet for her talent that she could also work around her family. 
But in the twentieth century, with the boom of entertainment media governing popularity, and therefore, work opportunities, if an actress was not in films or at least on television, she flew under the radar.  Soon enough, the years would come of the “whatever happened to?”  

Another appearance on The Steve Allen Show in July 1963 (shortly after the birth of her daughter, her fifth and last child) was advertised with the description: “The actress, Ann Blyth, will be a guest of the Steve Allen Show tonight, along with comedians Rowan and Martin.  Since she married Dennis Day’s brother, she has been seen much on the screen where she became famous as a singer, and also performed well as an actress.” 

I’m not sure if the explanation of who she was is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, or if having married Dennis Day’s brother was really her claim to fame six years after making her last film.
You can still see “The Clementine Jones” story here on YouTube.  Let me know what you think.

Don't forget to check out the other great entries in the Big Stars on the Small Screen Blogathon.
Come back next Thursday when we travel back a decade earlier to 1951 when Ann Blyth (a top star at the time who needed no introduction) plays another feisty, bitter, and tragic woman.  Convicted of murder, she’s on her way to the gallows when she takes refuge with Claudette Colbert, and a murderer, one dark and stormy night in Thunder on the Hill (1951).


***********************
The Deseret Utah News & Telegraph, July 19, 1963, p. 63
The New York Times, article by John P. Shanley, February 20, 1960, p. 45.

The St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, February 19, 1960, p. 9-D.
**********************
HELP!!!!!!!!!!
Now that I've got your attention: I'm still on the lookout for a movie called Katie Did It (1951) for this year-long series on the career of Ann Blyth.  It seems to be a rare one.  Please contact me on this blog or at my email: JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com if you know where I can lay my hands on this film.  Am willing to buy or trade, or wash windows in exchange.  Maybe not the windows part.  But you know what I mean.
Also, if anybody has any of Ann's TV appearances, there's a few I'm missing from Burke's Law, Switch, The Name of the Game, The Dick Powell show, the Dennis Day Show (TV), the DuPont Show with June Allyson, This is Your Life, Lux Video Theatre.  Also any video clips of her Oscar appearances.  Release the hounds.  And let me know, please. 
**************************

Oh, and while I still have you on the line, here's one more thing.  In response to the number of kind people who've requested print copies of my eBook Classic Films and the American Conscience, which is a collection of essays from this blog -- I still can't print that book because you wouldn't be able to lift it, and I couldn't afford to print it.  BUT, I'm putting out a new, smaller, collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century.   It will be issued in eBook as well as print, and I'll let you know more about it down the road.  I hope to have it published sometime in May.

15 comments:

Caftan Woman said...

I found many hidden treasures in the stories and performances on "Wagon Train", and Clementine Jones is one.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

It's a fun episode, one in which Ann Blyth adopts a completely different personality. It must have been a kick.

grandoldmovies said...

Dick York, like Ann Blyth, was another fine actor and underrated talent. He seems known today mainly for Bewitched, which basically required him to look befuddled and nothing else; but he was a marvelous comic actor. He's hilarious in Operation Mad Ball and in the musical version of My Sister Eileen. He's the kind of actor that, whenever I now see his name on the credits, I look forward to what I know will be an excellent performance.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

GOM, I agree with you on Dick York, a really fabulous actor and underrated. I've not yet seen that version of "My Sister Eileen" but I'll look forward to it. So tragic his career was cut short.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

As you might have guessed, seeing Willard Waterman turn up as the mayor was a special treat for me...I only wish my Gildersleeve laugh could be heard in this comment.

I caught this episode when Wagon Train was rerun over and over on RTN/RTV and it was an enjoyable little outing, so I equally entertained by your splendid write-up. And I might be able to help you out with the Burke's Law episodes if you still need 'em.

girlsdofilm said...

I love Ann Blyth, she was woefully underrated. I haven't seen a great deal of her TV work, but I'm glad to hear she was selective about the roles she chose. I agree with your point about the lack of substantial TV roles for women, and I think that's one of the reasons why I haven't watched that much TV from the period - I get too irritated!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Girlsdofilm, always glad to hear from another Ann Blyth fan. I don't think she would be considered underrated if we had more of her film work available to us. Unfortunately, a lot of it seems to be released on DVD. I'm hoping that will change.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr., Willard Waterman is always Gildersleeve to me, no matter what role he plays. That voice, even without the laugh. I'll be contacting you about the Burke's Law episodes, you wonderful, wonderful blogger you.

Yvette said...

Another interesting post, Jacqueline, where I learned even more about Ann Blyth, an actress, I admit, I hadn't thought of much these past few years.

I'm wondering after reading your post, just why she never became a big time musical star - since she had a good voice and was certainly beautiful.

I like this gal and it's all due to your reminding me how fabulous she was.

Aren't the Wagon Train episodes available on youtube? I thought I saw something or other about it.

I always liked Dick York too.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Yvette. We're going to be exploring more about her musical outings down the road, both in film and on stage. Maybe we can learn some answers together.

Your comment: "I like this gal and it's all due to your reminding me how fabulous she was." -- makes my whole day, Yvette. Bless your heart.

And yes, I think her Wagon Train episodes are still up on YouTube.

And Dick York was swell.

portraitsbyjenni said...

Enjoyed your post on Ann Blythe. I also enjoyed her turn on Twilight Zone, as the actress with a dark secret about why she never ages. Will watch the Wagon Train episode later today and thanks for putting it in your post.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Jenni. That Twilight Zone episode seems to be a favorite of everybody, and I'm looking forward to covering it later on in the year. Hope you enjoy the Wagon Train episode.

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

Delightful review of Ann's WAGON TRAIN episode! I always liked the format of WAGON TRAIN and other Western TV series in which a character, played by a guest star, was the focus of most of the episodes. GUNSMOKE and THE VIRGINIAN also followed this format.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you. I agree, I like that format, too. Those were great westerns.

said...

I'm glad you are showcasing th terrific Ann Blyth, an actress with a great range of talent. And I'm even gladder that this episode is on YouTube! And Dick York, yes, an actor who knew how to be serious when necessary!
I was once in a cruzade looking for Kati Did It. I didn't have success :/
Don't forget to erad my contribution for the blogathon! :)
Kisses!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks so much for stopping by. I've talked with a few others searching for "Katie" with no success. I'll keep trying.