Thursday, September 25, 2014

Two from '62 - Wagon Train and The Dick Powell Show

Two television programs from 1962—Wagon Train and The Dick Powell Show—were different as night and day, and so were the parts they offered Ann Blyth.  In these shows we notice several things: first, she still pursued a variety of roles; second, that TV was at the crossroads of the dependable Western formula and a new appetite for more gritty, and more modern, subject matter as TV grew up; and third, that TV was becoming more and more a haven for famous movie stars as Hollywood turned out less movies, and less movies that fit them.

Only a few years before, syndicated columnist Erskine Johnson noted:

Ann Blyth is still looking for a good woman’s script… “I’ve received dozens of scripts and the roles for men are strong, vital and terrific,” she told me, “the roles for women, however, are underwritten, under developed, and practically underprivileged.”

The Dick Powell Show was an anthology program in which a number of former Hollywood greats had guest roles.  The episode Ann Blyth appeared in was called “Savage Sunday” about a New York newspaper, broadcast May 1, 1962.  So promising was this story that it served as the pilot for a new series that fall, Saints and Sinners, which we discussed here.  

Though in “Savage Sunday,” Ann was one of the newspaper journalists, and was originally reported in the press that spring of 1962 as joining the cast for the fall, she opted out of a regular gig on TV, and fulfilled a contractual obligation to the production company, Four Star, instead with only a guest role on Saints and Sinners as another character.  

Though one can understand the decision against a long-term commitment for various reasons, as we discussed in last week’s post on the Wagon Train episode, “The Martha Barham Story,” it really is a shame since the role of Lizzie Hogan, the sassy Washington correspondent, could have, if the writers were cooperative, been a groundbreaking role for women on TV, and one that Ann may have handled brilliantly.

“Savage Sunday,” because it is an ensemble piece, spends much of the hour introducing us in deft snippets to the cast in the newsroom, including star Nick Adams, a young reporter with a tough background; John Larkin as the grouchy editor; Robert E. Simon as his second in command, and Russell Thorson, who plays an old-timer re-write man.   

One of the subplots of the story has to do with Mr. Thorson’s ill health, and struggling to maintain his position as the old lion of the newsroom, while Mr. Adams, the younger man with a more nimble facility with words—even if, as we will see, he still has a lot to learn—usurps him as the star of the newsroom.

Enter Ann Blyth, a firecracker from the moment she makes her entrance and crosses the forest of manual typewriters and clackety-clack of the teletype machines.  She is normally posted to a political beat in Washington, but she’s up here in New York covering a United Nations function.   

We will later see her at the U.N. reception dressed to the nines and beaming a thousand-watt sexuality as she lifts her glance over the rim of her champagne glass.   

She explains in a low, casually worldly tone to Adams, whom she has invited as her date, that when a servant comes to interrupt the gaggle of ambassadors, “Usually it means that a car is parked in the wrong direction.  But once in a while it may mean Pearl Harbor.”

We see she is not just fabulous in an evening gown.  She is respected in the newsroom.  Russell Thorson tells her, “You class up the joint.”  Only do the then typically sexist TV critics of the day refer to her as a "girl reporter."

She is smart and savvy, and there is a touch of hardness in her voice, as if Nick Adams isn’t the only one who’s come from humble beginnings.  We can well believe she’s a woman who created herself from scratch, able to parry with politicians and root out their lies over cocktails, but that she was not born to this life and retains her wariness and her street smarts. 

But the focus of the episode is on Nick Adams’ handling of a breaking story, that of a naïve young woman, played by Carolyn Kearny, who comes to the big city to visit her boyfriend who attends Bible school.  She is assaulted by a nasty soldier, played by Mark Rydell, and rescued by a nice soldier, played by Ben Piazza.  Mr. Adams writes a sensationalist story that makes matters worse for her with her sanctimonious boyfriend, who feels she has been tainted by the assault.  By the end of the episode Adams learns that he went overboard.

Interestingly, syndicated columnist Rick Du Brow commented:

It doesn’t make any pretense about cutting out violence.  The assault scene, in a car, was pretty strong stuff…

By today’s standards, it is tame, and that says more than anything.

One of the exciting touches to the show is its being filmed, or at least a second unit filmed, in New York City.  There are several location shots, first Nick Adams walking to work from what looks to be First Avenue (you can see the United Nations headquarters in the distance) to what might be East 47th Street.  Close to the neighborhood where Ann grew up.

There are fabulous neon signs blazing in the nighttime scenes, for the famous ballroom Roseland, and we see The Unsinkable Molly Brown is playing at the Winter Garden.  This show, staring Tammy Grimes (who won the Tony for it), and Harve Presnell closed in February 1962, so we can assume this episode was filmed at least around that time, or earlier.

Elmer Bernstein's jazzy theme song, pulsating brass.

Note how the first thing Adams does before he settles down to type his story is to pull out a cigarette, as if it will help him to think of that first gripping who-what-when-where-and how of the lead.   

The first thing Ann does when she sits down to type is look for a cigarette, and he comes to her rescue, producing one from his own pack and lighting it for her.  It is our first clue that they are circling around each other less like adversaries and more like prospective mates—and there is room for them to be both in future episodes.  (Interestingly, I think he is one of the few, if not the only, male lead to be younger than Ann in real life up to that time—Nick Adams was not quite three years younger.  Most of her male leads were much older.)

Unfortunately, Ann did not stay with the show, so her Lizzie Hogan remains a tantalizing, unfulfilled promise.

At least one review of the day thought her miscast, and “hard to swallow,” leaning back on her real-life reputation for wholesomeness that sometimes worked against the variety of roles she could have played, and that we discussed here in this previous post on “What’s a Nice Girl Like Ann Blyth Doing in a Place Like This?”

Her reputation for being a nice girl might even have worked against her next TV role as a saloon gal on Wagon Train in an episode called “The Eve Newhope Story,” broadcast December 5, 1962, series 6, episode number 12.  A tongue-in-cheek report, also by columnist Rick Du Brow:

A thrill of anticipation swept through our household last night when we heard that Ann Blyth was going to play a saloon-keeper…

It was as though we were to learn that Lawrence Welk had decided to enact the life of Casanova.

Our Annie running a saloon?  And wearing a plunging neckline?  Well, of course we shouldn’t have worried—and that was the whole point of last night’s operetta-like comedy…she is more chaste than chased.

As much as I love that last pithy line, we see Mr. Du Brow’s closing comment is equal parts tribute and condemnation:

Annie did all right in her part if you like ageless ingénues.

It seems she has more than just her reputation for wholesomeness to gnaw at her career at this stage; there is also the usual media prejudice against aging women.  And, ironically, what to do with them if they did not have the good sense to look like matrons and drift off into character parts at 33.

And she was only 33.  And still stunning.  What to do, what to do?

“The Eve Newhope Story” is a charming fairy tale, where Ann, who gets to dust off her Irish accent and even sing a couple verses of Thomas Moore’s lovely “The May Moon” while waltzing with the lucky Frank McGrath, is saloonkeeper in a mining camp.  Her regulars are scruffy misfits, and she is their den mother who breaks up their fights, holds their money for them, stops them from drinking too much, and enjoys the respect and devotion of all of them, several of whom want to marry her.  She is perfectly content in her little kingdom until she gets word her father has traveled from Ireland to visit her.  She has lied to him in letters, to ease his mind about her, that she is married to a fine man and living in a fine house.

Her da is played by Tudor Owen, who, I think, rather brings the raucous and lighthearted story down a bit with his doleful playing of his character.  He seems a thoroughly mournful chap, in contrast to folks like Slim Pickens as “Grub Stake” and Jim Davis as Dan Ryan, and all the boys at the bar.

Wagon master John McIntire is not along for the ride on this episode, however, and we have Terry Wilson instead partnering with Frank McGrath to figure out a way to reintroduce this dour Irishman to his spirited daughter.

The episode was written by John McGreevey, one of my TV favorites, and has a playful tone to it, but offers Ann a strongly written character of a woman who’s clearly in charge, and also torn by the decisions she’s made.  There are some good lines.  She chastises stumblebum Slim Pickens, 

“Grub Stake, you’re been spending entirely too much time with your jackass and it’s plain he’s a bad influence.”

She wants to confess right off to her father when he comes that she lied, and just let him see how her life really is as a saloonkeeper, as she isn’t ashamed of it at all.  She’s rather proud of what she’s accomplished, for among all the get-rich-quick dreamers among the miners, she’s the one who’s steadily built up a degree of wealth.  

But the boys won’t have it.  They are protective of her, and insist they will handle everything, and like Snow White’s dwarves, they fix a ramshackle cottage, stuff it with furniture, get her a couple disreputable female neighbors (as women are a civilizing influence in the Old West), and choose by cards one of them to be her pretend husband, lucky guy Jim Davis.  

A funny scene is when a group of the boys collect in her boudoir over the saloon to decide what she should wear and how her hair should be done.  For a lot of mangy saddle tramps, they certainly seem to have a fair knowledge of Godey’s Lady’s Book.

That she is reticent to go along with this and they are excited by making her over is one cute plot twist.  Another is that she comes to feel resentful about it, sensing they are ashamed of her.
Da comes, she plays her part, but he finds out the truth, and properly horrified, he intends to leave on the wagon train.  She intends to give up the saloon and leave her so-called friends and admirers, angry that they have made her doubt her own accomplishments, of which she has been so proud. 

Eventually, she and Da reconcile, and she invites him to come back to live with her at the saloon, sharing her life and her special place in this community with him.  Her pretend husband follows along to help with the luggage, and we have the feeling he may join the family after all.

By the time this episode aired, Ann was expecting her fifth and last child.  Saints and Sinners, aired the next month.  This flush of TV roles was like a booster rocket to her career that had drifted somewhat since her final film role in The Helen Morgan Story (1957), but with the coming spring, and the new baby, Ann was already preparing for the next new phase in her career—a several-decade stint in live theatre, which we discussed in this previous post.

Her television appearances from now on would be few and far between—but her next one would have a special and lasting impact.  It was her famous Twilight Zone guest appearance ("ageless ingenues" indeed) , and we’ll talk about that on Halloween. 

Come back next Thursday when we go back to the movies, back to 1947 and the stunning noir prison escape story Brute Force starring Burt Lancaster.

The Beaver County (Pennsylvania) Times, May 2, 1962, p. 17.

Reading (Pennsylvania) Eagle, December 6, 1962, syndicated column by Rick Du Brow, “Wagon Train Brings Many Belly Laughs, Says Critic”, p. 31.

Register-Guard (Eugene, Oregon), May 2, 1962, syndicated column by Rick Du Brow, p. 9C.

The Times Daily (Florence, Alabama), July 30, 1958, syndicated column by Erskine Johnson, p. 4. 

As  most of you probably know by now, this year's TCM Classic Cruise will set sail (proverbially) in October, and one of the celebrity guests is Ann Blyth.

Ann will be doing a couple hour-long conversation sessions, and will also be on hand for a screening of Mildred Pierce.

Have a look here for the rest of the schedule and events with the other celebrity guests. Unfortunately, the cruise is booked, so if' you're late, you can try for the waiting list.

I, sadly, am unable to attend this cruise, but if any reader is going,  I invite you (beg you) to share your experiences and/or photos relating to Miss Blyth on this blog as part of our year-long series on her career.  I'd really appreciate your perspective on the event, to be our eyes and ears.  Thanks.
 THANK the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  And thanks to all those who signed on as backers to my recent Kickstarter campaign.  The effort failed to raise the funding needed, but I'll always remember your kind support.
TRIVIA QUESTION:  I've recently been contacted by someone who wants to know if the piano player in Dillinger (1945-see post here) is the boogie-woogie artist Albert Ammons. Please leave comment or drop me a line if you know.
UPDATE:  This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -
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.

 "Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood

Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.

A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out in eBook, and in paperback here.

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