Thursday, January 16, 2014

Wagon Train - "The Jenny Tannen Story" & This is Your Life - 1959

It is delightful to be reminded that even on the small screen, in a written-to-formula family-friendly 1950s western—there can be great performances.

“The Jenny Tannen Story” was the first of five episodes in which Ann Blyth appeared on the TV Western WagonTrain.  Here she plays two roles: a cold, aloof middle-aged woman and the spirited estranged daughter who crosses the continent to meet her.  There’s a lot in this episode for Ann to do, including sing, and it’s easy to see why she chose this script among previous others for this show that she’d refused.  Though her last movie, The Helen Morgan Story (1957), was released about a year and a half before this Wagon Train episode was filmed, she apparently felt no need to rush into any project, but continued to be choosy about her properties. 

She also had her third baby in the meantime, so she was a bit busy.

Long post.  Please do not read this on your iPads while you are driving.

She could not have known then that The Helen Morgan Story would be the last film she’d ever make—she certainly intended to make more—but at this time there coincidentally occurred an interesting period of reflection on her career in April 1959 when she was in the middle of filming this Wagon Train episode.  She was 30 years old, had made 32 films, worked since she was six years old, and already had a handful of guest appearances under her belt in the new medium of television.  She was about to have another TV appearance, unwittingly, as the honoree/victim of This is Your Life.

What must it be like for a mere 30-year old to look back upon her life and career, when one is normally just beginning?  That alone is a poignant irony, as if foreshadowing the end of her film career.

Presented April 1, 1959, host Ralph Edwards surprised Ann at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Los Angeles where she had expected to film a TV plea for the hospital’s annual fund drive.  The Ralph Edwards stunt was really supposed to have occurred a week earlier, but Ann foiled Mr. Edward’s program by getting sick.

Part of the notoriety of This is Your Life was the surprise element.  Just about all the honorees were surprised; most were gracious about it, but not everyone was happy to be center stage in what many critics believed to be a maudlin circus and an invasion of privacy.  Some actually did enjoy the experience.  I don’t know where Ann Blyth fits in that mob, but it’s funny that she managed to trip up snoopy Ralph Edwards and put a lot of people to a lot of trouble when a virus laid her low.

She began filming “The Jenny Tannen Story” on March 24th, and the next day got sick.  Considering it was a wagon train in the nineteenth century, she’s lucky it didn’t turn out to be cholera or typhoid or the ague. 

Ralph Edwards scrambled to show a repeat on TV that he had in the can and put off the Ann Blyth episode, stalling her husband, who was in on the surprise, and all the guests who were supposed to show up and recall Ann’s life, which included some relatives who’d come over from Ireland.  This included a bagpipe-playing uncle, who disturbed the other guests at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel with his constant practicing, in his room and in the lobby.  If you think bagpipes are loud in a parade, you should hear them in the next room.

“His incessant practicing kept the hostelry’s complaint desk busy for a whole week,” reported syndicated columnist Hal Humphrey.

According to a syndicated article by Buck Herzog, “It was rather a hectic week for people around Hollywood.”

Possibly nobody was more nerve-wracked than Ann’s husband, Dr. James McNulty, whose job was to fetch her from her long day at the studio and her covered wagon and deliver her to St. Joseph’s on time, still keeping it a secret.  She had volunteered to help many charities—even as a very young woman she was noted for devoting a huge part of her life to benefits—so one more request was not unusual, but she was bushed.  Her energy was low after a five-day virus, and she likely wanted to save herself for tomorrow's shoot.

According to Mr. Humphrey, Dr. McNulty pushed her, “You can’t let the Sisters down.  They’re expecting you.”

To which she is reported as replying, “Will they put that on my epitaph?”  Her sense of duty prevailed, and when she arrived and was shocked by Ralph Edwards and that bloody album in his arm, “My mouth fell open and stayed there.”

This was April 1st.  Unfortunately, I’ve not seen the episode, but the This is Your Life official website lists the following guests:

Dennis Day, who was her brother-in-law (we’ll get back to Mr. Day down the road).  Mrs. Gertrude Gonzales was a childhood friend who reported on the occasion when Ann was severely injured in the toboggan accident, which we discussed here in our intro post.  Gladys Hoene was her teacher at the Universal school, whom we also discussed in our intro post.  David Immerman was an artist who revealed a portrait of Ann and her (at the time) three children, and the children were also presented on the show.  Teresa Lynch, her cousin from Ireland who at the time was helping to care for Ann's children, and Miss Lynch’s father, Thomas Dill Lynch, who was the notorious bagpipe player from Ireland.  Dressed in his kilt, he played on the show.

Madge Tucker Miller was the producer of Coast to Coast on a Bus, the radio show which gave Ann her start, and which we discussed in our intro post.  Ann’s beloved Uncle Pat and Aunt Catherine (Cis) Tobin, who came to live with her after the death of her mother, also mentioned in the intro post, were guests.  The party was rounded out by Ann’s longtime pal, fellow actress Jane Withers.

I don’t know how long they kept her up that night with all the hoopla, but the next day she was back at work on WagonTrain.  The Hal Humphrey article noted that she wanted to work more often, but that she was careful about her scripts.

“I don’t want to be just part of the background.  I want something to do.”  She remarked that she liked “The Jenny TannenStory” script because it gave her more substance, “When Louis B. Mayer ran things at MGM, he saw to it that the scripts were tailored more for women.  But now movies and TV turn out mostly stories about men.”

It would be a complaint voiced by many actresses over the next few decades.

But “The Jenny Tannen Story” is hers from fade in to fade out.  It was the final episode of season two, broadcast June 24, 1959.

We begin with a weird and ominous prologue.  We hear Ann’s trained lyric soprano soaring on the last line of “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls”, and see a lady performer on stage in a long shot, thrilling a packed San Francisco concert hall.  She is Jenny Tannen.  Next, we see Ann Blyth as Jenny from the back, standing atop a staircase, the toast of the town, with a champagne glass extended, returning a toast to her gentlemen admirers.  Too tipsy, or a sudden spell, she tumbles down the staircase.  Unconscious at the bottom, face-down, we see a man attempting to help her, and we see the dark blood when he pulls his hand away from her hidden face.  She has fallen on the champagne glass.

(By the way, I don’t know if this was used on purpose by the writer of the episode, Kathleen Hite, who had numerous TV credits to her name, including several Gunsmoke and The Waltons episodes, but there’s an old theatre superstition about the song, “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls,” which is from the opera The Bohemian Girl, written in 1843 by William Michael Balfe, lyrics by Alfred Bunn.  It is bad luck to sing this song in a theater unless you’re presenting it in that opera.  Poor Jenny Tannen was singing it alone as a concert piece.  She should have known better.  Fool.)

Cut to ten years later, and the wagon train, led by Major Ward Bond, stops at a watering hole.  There, we are greeted by another lilting song about “The Good Old Golden West” in the less operatic but still fulsome soprano of a playful young woman cheerfully drawing water by a river where the wagon train has stopped to rest.  Ann plays a double role as Phoebe, who is on her own, crossing the country to get to San Francisco to find her mother, Jenny Tannen, whom she has never seen.  She’s working as a “hired girl” for a family, earning her passage.  She’s the picture of loveliness, happy, optimistic, unafraid, and with that kerchief on her head, she looks like Cinderella.  You expect woodland creatures to come up to her and do her chores.

Phoebe has some bad luck, too, right off the bat, when she tumbles from the wagon and conks her head on a rock.  Ward Bond, the wagon master, rushes over, and in a nice reprise of grim images, we see blood from the back on her head smeared on his dirty old leather gauntlet.

Because she has nobody to look after her, and because he’s the star, Ward Bond takes her to a doctor in a nearby town.  She’s conscious, but suffering headaches and her vision is blurry.  Blackouts come and go.  Doc tells Ward Bond that there’s pressure in her skull and she’s going to go blind pretty soon.

Mr. Bond, and Gabby Hayes School of Sidekicks graduate Frank McGrath leave the wagon train and take Phoebe to San Francisco pronto so she can see her mother while she can still see.  Nobody’s told Phoebe about the diagnosis.

Ward Bond has a little trouble locating the now reclusive Jenny Tannen in the big city—she’s removed herself from society after her tumble down the stairs ten years ago—but he finally locates her big old Victorian house here on the back lot.  (We must have seen this house in dozens of other shows and movies, but I’m drawing a blank right now.  Let me know if you recognize it.) 

The wonderful character actor Ian Wolfe plays the properly dismissive butler whom Ward Bond manhandles to get in to see Jenny.  Jenny, holding court by herself in a dim parlor, consents to see him.  If only to save the butler’s life.

Now, this scene that plays out between Jenny Tannen and Ward Bond is, I’m sure, why Ann Blyth took this gig.  It’s terrific.  The writing is crisp and biting.  Brava, Kathleen Hite, also director Christian Nyby for setting up some intriguing shots and knowing when to let it play.

As Jenny Tannen, Ann is suspicious, sarcastic, cold and bitter, and deeply controlled.  Her hair is piled on her head and tinged with gray, the picture of an independent nineteenth century woman of a certain age, who has created walls around herself.  It is interesting that her daughter is meant to be perhaps in her late teens or early twenties and Ann Blyth, at 30 years old in real life, is smack between the ages of the fictional characters she plays.  The reach in either direction is easy for her.  The daughter’s voice is high and soft; the mother’s falls at a lower register, with a dry rustiness to it that suggests a person who does not converse much.  In manner and speech, you can easily believe them to be two different actresses.

I think it was your friend and mine Laura of Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings last year in a post comment who remarked that Ann Blyth’s voice changes from movie to movie.  It has since occurred to me that, apart from her radio training, perhaps in the same way a trained singer is able to change keys while singing, so she might also be able to change the key of her speaking voice.  It’s not something I think we run into that much with classic film stars, who were utilized by their respective studios to promote the brand of their own stardom, largely through gimmick.  Barbara Stanwyck, or Bette Davis, or Humphrey Bogart, for instance, or Katharine Hepburn—you can close your eyes while the movie is on and still know who the actors and actresses are.  You can’t, necessarily, with Ann Blyth.  Here she has three distinct voices: Phoebe, Jenny, and Jenny as a younger woman.

Ward Bond, pleased as punch that he found Phoebe’s mother, is abashed when she displays disinterest.  She refuses to see her daughter.  She sits in profile in the dim room, rolling her glance at him out of one stern eye. 

“I have only the barest recollection of having been a mother.”  She married young, unhappily, and ran away from her severe and controlling husband shortly after the child was born.  “Please, Major, please don’t ask me to manufacture an emotion I can’t feel.”

Her control is paramount to the power of the scene.  She never teeters into mawkish or overblown emotionality.  She keeps herself tightly reigned in, and we can easily believe that this is a woman who recalls her pregnancy and former life—and having abandoned her daughter—with complete disgust.

“We were very poor when we married, but that would have been bearable if there had been any love in our marriage.”  She throws him a dagger of a look, “There was none.”  She speaks these lines as one sickened.  Kathleen Hite must have pleased to hear her lines nailed with such eloquent matter-of-fact distaste. 

Ann seethes, throwing Ward Bond’s own shock in his face, “When I could feel no more shame of wanting a little joy in life, I left him and the child I had not wanted to bear him.”  Her voice rises and falls, grows threatening, taunting, and confessional.

Ward, exasperated because he wants his happy ending and he wants it now, blurts out to her that her daughter is going blind.  Jenny remains adamant that she will not see her, but in a businesslike way offers money and to put her in touch with doctors.  Her only bit of drama, a slice of her former showmanship, is to part the drapes and let a shaft of light in so that Ward Bond, and we, can see her facial scars.  This is what happens when you fall face downward on a champagne glass.  She does not want pity, her voice is sarcastic.  “I think we can spare Phoebe the sight of her mother.” 

Back at the hotel, Frank McGrath has decided Phoebe needs a night on the town, so he and Ward go out to buy her a gown.  Reminds me of when Henry Higgins and Col. Pickering are dressing Eliza Doolittle.  Ward is decidedly awkward about all this fashion stuff, but Frank has exquisite taste.  When next we see Phoebe resplendent in her gown, sophisticated with bare shoulders and her hair up, she is the belle of the ball.  Ward Bond and Miss Blyth waltz, while Ann sings “Tomorrow is Just a Day Away” (which your friend and mine, Caftan Woman can sing just as well, I’m sure.)

Ward Bond and Frank McGrath are wearing tuxes.  They clean up good.

Ward Bond has decided he’s not going to tell Phoebe he met her mother, but somebody in the ballroom remarks on the similarity between mother and daughter, and tells Phoebe where to find Jenny Tannen.  Cat’s out of the bag now.

By the time Ann and Ward are at the great lady’s house once more, awaiting the crusty butler to open the door, Ann’s not feeling too well.  Her eyesight’s fading fast, and it’s just occurred to her that maybe mom doesn’t want to see her and this was a dumb idea.  When she blacks out again, Ward has to carry her in and set her down on the sofa in the dim parlor.  When she comes to, she’s blind.  She was never told that it was going to come to this, but now she knows, and she’s panicking.

I really like Ward Bond in this episode, his craggy tenderness for the young woman, his fatherly gentleness with her.  Navigating this girl’s illness and her reunion with her mother has been worse on his nerves than any danger he’s faced in the Wild West.

Ward calms her down as her mother steps into the room.  Perceiving the situation, Jenny feels bold enough to risk a glance over the back of the sofa to look at her daughter.  We have a convenient placement of objects and furniture in the room to allow for both to be in the shot, but by now, we may very well have forgotten it’s the same actress.  The gimmick isn’t important to the story.

Phoebe’s heart sinks when she realizes the game is really up.  She never should have tried to see her mother, and she’s never going to see her anyway.  “I guess she just doesn’t love me, Major.  She never did.  I guess I had to come and be in her house to face up to it.  It’s better that I found out before I saw her, don’t you think?”  She’s is equally afraid of being a burden as she is afraid of how she will manage alone now that she is blind.

The real drama comes from her mother though, staring blankly at the girl with only the slightest flicker of emotion across her stony expression.  She’s coming face to face with the past she tried to run away from, and its horror crumbles into dust before her.  The bitterness and disgust of a loveless marriage, a pregnancy and child she did not want, are gone.  All that remains of what was so horrible in her memory is just a helpless young woman who is a complete stranger to her.

There is no hearts-and-flowers burst of love for the girl—something much more intriguing and realistic—a sense of relief in letting go of the past, and a clean slate with curiosity for the future that this girl may represent for her.

Jenny could have extended a hand to her—she’s close enough now to touch her and make her presence known—but resists, partly in caution, but also as if respecting the girl’s pride to not be pitied for her blindness even as her own pride would not let the world see her facial scars.

Their ultimate happy reunion—and of course there’s going to be one—happens at the hospital after the inevitable successful operation, for which Phoebe’s head did not need to be shaved and she requires no bandages.  Only once do we have a Patty Duke Show split-screen effect at the end, and I suspect this was due more to an obligatory demonstration, and reminder to the audience, that they were watching one actress in two roles.

The end seems a bit of an anticlimax, and ironically, might have been more powerful with a less immediate acceptance of each other.  Still, their reunion is what Ward Bond wants and so do we.  We may guess what mother and daughter have to look forward to now they have become a family.  What would Ann Blyth have to look forward to in her career now that This is Your Life decided she had reached a plateau at only 30 years old?

Having made her last movie, unknown to anyone at that time, a sort of plateau was reached, ironically and regrettably.

We will move ahead to what happened beyond this plateau--plenty did, an entirely new facet of her career, in fact--but not yet.  Come back next Thursday when we jump back to the spring of 1948: 19-year-old Ann demonstrates her versatility of voice performing in a stellar example of radio drama at its finest—Studio One and a gothic tale of suspense in “The Angelic Avengers”.

This Wagon Train episode of "The Jenny Tannen Story" may still be up at YouTube in two parts.  Part one is here. 

James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Winter 1965), p. 134.
Milwaukee Sentinel, syndicated article by Buck Herzog, April 21, 1959.

Opie, Iona and Moria Tatem, eds. A Dictionary of Superstitions (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 397.
Radford, Edwin and Mona August Radford.  The Encyclopedia of Superstitions (NY: Metro Books) p. 241

This is Your Life Official Website.

Toledo Blade, syndicated article by Hal Humphrey, June 22, 1959.
The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.



grandoldmovies said...

Another beautiful post on this talented, underrated actress. And very perceptive of Ann not to play the reunion scene sentimentally, but with truth. I hope you get a chance to review Ann in a 'Twilight Zone' episode she made, in which, as in 'Wagon Train,' she's an accomplished performer who also has a daughter, but is in a very strange relationship with her.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks very much, GOM. I like your assessment of her as playing with truth and being perceptive. Well put. I have that "Twilight Zone" episode you mention slated for Halloween. Cuz it's creepy. We'll have to wait.

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

I haven't seen this episode in its entirety yet, but like Caftan Woman, I love that waltz. "Golden West" and "Tomorrow" were actually composed by John Williams (the John Williams), with lyrics by Frederick Herbert, and they apparently became very popular pieces in Universal's stock music library. I've heard them dozens of times, for instance, in episodes of The Virginian, played on a piano in the background of saloon scenes or with violins at a dance.

I didn't realize Ann Blyth was in so many Wagon Train episodes—the only other one I've seen is "The Fort Pierce Story."

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Elisabeth, for the background info on these songs used in the episode. I hadn't realized they were part of Universal's stock music library. I'll have to pay attention and see if I can pick them out in other shows.

We'll cover the other Ann Blyth episodes of "Wagon Train" in the year ahead.

Rich said...

This may seem like a silly question but it just occurred to me: is it 'Blyth' with a long-y sound (rhymes with strife) or a short-y (rhymes with scythe)?

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Long y = strife. Scythe also has the same long y sound. Like "blithe", which several newspaper editors have used as a pun on her name when writing headlines. I wonder how many have called her a "Blithe Spirit" thinking they were being witty and original. Must be at least 50.

Laura said...

Hi Jacqueline,

Thanks for another very interesting post, and I also appreciate your kind mention! Blyth's ability to really "inhabit" her characters down to the voice is fascinating. I loved your description of how she sounded as each character.

I love Ward Bond so I need to make it a point to watch this and Blyth's other WAGON TRAIN episodes.

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Laura. What's interesting about the "Wagon Train" episodes is that they're all quite different characters and offered her a surprising range.

Caftan Woman said...

Ann Blyth is such an accomplished performer that it's a shame when material doesn't match her abilities. Thankfully she found it from Kathleen Hite, whom I always think of as the "Gunsmoke" gal. She is probably the reason there are so many treasures to be found in western episodic television.

Elisabeth mentioned the waltz as being part of Universal's library and for years in my family we simply called it "The Virginian" party music. I think many sopranos fancy themselves in Ms. Blyth's league when they sing that irresistible tune.

Ward Bond had some lovely moments in "Wagon Train" that rival some of his best movies. I once saw Frank McGrath playing a no name outlaw in another program and he was as cold-eyed a killer as ever drew a bead on a hero. Shook this Charlie Wooster fan up quite a bit.

The year of Ann Blyth is one of my favourite things about 2014. Very nice.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, CW. I love that bit about "The Virginian" party music. I'm going to have to catch up to you and Elisabeth and join the party on these songs.

I'm also a big fan of Kathleen Hite. You knew when you saw her name on the credits, it was going to be a good episode.

And how fortunate for Ward Bond, and us, that TV gave him a starring role at last.

Your remark here: "Ann Blyth is such an accomplished performer that it's a shame when material doesn't match her abilities." -- I'm coming to sense this is a common sentiment among Ann Blyth fans, that she was really so good and the material she was given did not always lend itself to her exquisite talent.

Anonymous said...

Sounds a must see episode. I 'll get onto Youttube soon.
So sad really that Ann's film career was over at such a young age. Hard to believe she want offered roles in the late 50s.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I'm so glad these episodes are available for us to see. I'd love to know what you think once you've seen it. I agree, it's too bad there weren't more films.

KU4GW Cliff said...

I"m viewing The Jenny Tannen Story Wagon Train episode right now on StarzEncore Westerns channel via DirecTV and Phoebe's mom has just asked Major Adams (Ward Burton) to take her to meet her daughter. Definitely one, if not the best, Wagon Train episode I"ve ever viewed!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for the info, Cliff! I'm so glad this series is still currently available to viewers on the StarzEncore Westerns channel. I'm glad you liked the episode. I sure did, too.

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