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Oh Liza, Poor Liza!
Musical television special from November 1965, apparently broadcast live by ABC (and with very little rehearsal), is a coy, nutty take on the "Little Red Riding Hood" tale, with music by "Funny Girl" composers Bob Merrill and Jule Styne (who also served as executive producers!). Young Liza Minnelli is Lillian (a.k.a. Red Riding Hood) who fends off the friendship of a lonely, debonair, Shakespeare-quoting forest wolf; when he realizes he's lost her to a singing woodchopper, he decides to have her for dinner (literally). Despite some interesting camera-work (for its time) and good, clear sound, this black-and-white relic isn't very memorable. I'm sure Styne and Merrill left some of these songs off their resume, particularly the Lillian-Wolf duet "Ding-A-Ling". Cyril Ritchard is very confident as the suave wolf (he glides through this unsure production as if he didn't have a nerve in his body), but Minnelli is a different matter. This certainly wasn't Liza's first time in the spotlight (TV or otherwise), but she attacks her moments on camera with the overt eagerness of a brassy, bustling newcomer. Even her quiet solo, "I'm Naive", is jazzed up by Liza's over-emphatic delivery and kinetic body language. Minnelli-buffs will undoubtedly want to take a look, but the story and the songs don't really go together, and the Christmas theme is practically irrelevant.
A frisky episode for Marlo's Ann Marie...
One of the better-written episodes from "That Girl"'s second season (by Jim Brooks, of all people) has perky-but-scatterbrained Ann Marie getting a bit part in a stage revival of "Gypsy" starring Ethel Merman. Ann simply cannot contain her enthusiasm for Ms. Merman and nearly makes an unprofessional pest out of herself. Luckily, Merman (doing a fantastic comedic turn) is just a regular, down-to-Earth kinda gal and soon winds up in Ann's kitchen cooking dinner! I have always had a few nitpicks about this show, starting with Ann's name. 'Ann-Marie' is great as a first name, but it always sounded strange to me hearing her father introduce himself as 'Mr. Marie'. Why couldn't their surname be Murray--Ann could be 'Ann-Marie Murray'? Another problem is with the casting of 'Mr. Marie': Lew Parker continually played this role on the verge of mental exasperation (and he was certainly exasperating!); no one ever gets to put the man in his place (when he's wrong, he just looks pig-headed, yet nobody calls him on it). Ann was another frustrating writers' creation: sparkly, flirtatious, but constantly silly-acting, she's the lovable klutz--a throwback to the gals of screwball comedy. If Ann had been conceived as somewhat more savvy, she might have been a great pre-feminist character. As such, she's a well-groomed imp, a little girl playing dress-up, and one waits patiently for her to turn that patented spunk into some street-smarts.
Family Affair: Mr. Osaki's Tree (1970)
Normally a weak year for any sitcom, this 4th season episode is awfully familiar...
I'm hard-pressed to criticize a loving and gentle show like "Family Affair", but sometimes the writers pushed the kids' neuroses a little too far. This is especially true in the case of Johnnie Whitaker's Jody, who continually attaches himself to fantasies, delusions, and guest stars as if they were going to abandon him forever. Here, Buffy and Jody visit an elderly Japanese friend for the last time--he's dying and wants to return to his homeland--and get as a gift a Bonsai tree. Despite a reasonable argument from Uncle Bill, Jody has it in his head that the old man and the tree are spiritually connected, and when the tree starts to die under his care, he's convinced his friend is expiring too. Mr. Osaki already told the kids he didn't have long to live, yet Jody is adamant that the tree mustn't die (to the point where I thought a little psychotherapy was in order). It certainly isn't strange to see the twins (Jody in particular) becoming frantic over a separation (they are orphans after all), but here the writers are crazy enough to side with Jody, ending with a "miraculous" happy ending which I found difficult to swallow.
Family Affair: The Inheritance (1970)
Terrific episode with a subtle lesson about greed and generosity...
Often criticized by viewers as being 'too good to be true', the Davis twins Buffy and Jody actually get to exhibit a bit of uncommon bad behavior in this episode where they come into a combined inheritance of some fifty-four dollars. Seems an elderly pigeon-feeder in the park took a liking to the kids and remembered them in his will, all of which leads the kids to the nearest toy store to spend their loot. Despite the fact the shelves are loaded with mouth-watering goodies (like a Disneyland See 'n Say, which is now worth a good $300), Buffy wants a dollhouse (yawn) and Jody wants a telescope. Both items cannot be purchased with their one check, so Uncle Bill tosses a coin. Predictably (but happily), the kids learn a lesson about greed and giving, and everyone ends up satisfied (with the possible exception of the clerk in the toy shop!). Somewhat similar to the famous "Brady Bunch" episode where the gang squabbled over their trading stamps, this one doesn't have a house-of-cards sequence, instead putting character development over situation.
Near-perfect mixture of comedy and sentiment
Allowed to walk home from school by themselves for the very first time, Buffy and Jody come across an extraordinarily quiet little girl who has been transplanted to New York from Puerto Rico. Buffy can't seem to get the kid to open up, so she asks Uncle Bill to teach her a little Spanish. This doesn't work either, and we soon find out why--the youngster is deaf and mute. Just about the perfect example of "Family Affair"'s ability to blend childhood whimsy with sentimental drama, and Brian Keith is especially good here once Buffy gets him involved. The Davis twins were forever bringing home misfit kids (and stray animals!), but a nice lesson is always learned, and here it is handled with great skill and taste. The child actress playing little Juanita is very natural and convincing, and Anissa Jones and Johnnie Whitaker both do wonderful work.
Mama's Family: What a Dump (1989)
Fair episode with one good sight-gag
Beverly Archer (a.k.a. Iola Boylen) wrote this pretty funny episode concerning the history of Mama's house. Mayor Tuttweiler has decided to turn Mama's street into the site for the new city dump, giving Mama and all the other residents $30K to find new houses before the month's end. Everyone seems surprisingly happy about moving except Mama, who wants to keep her showplace, but Bubba's history paper about Raytown founder James A. Ray may save the day! Ends with a great sight-gag involving Vicki Lawrence riding a wrecking ball. Archer does a good job at giving everyone a slice of the pie, although this script seems a little mean-spirited and is curiously low on big laughs.
Family Affair: Flower Power (1969)
Cissy wants to be a Weekend Hippy!
Cissy's clean-cut (i.e., square) date takes her to "The East Village" where he suddenly turns into a rather awkward hippie (complete with Beatle wig!); Cissy is unsure of the kids there, but by night's end she's starting to open up to their peace-and-love lifestyle. Uncle Bill isn't crazy about it, but he goes with Cissy to the pad to check things out and, aside from one disturbance (Jamie Farr in kooky clothes demanding a hammer), he allows Cissy to spend the weekend there away from home. The hippies come to pick Cissy up and love Mr. French's beard ("we're home!"), but wise-but-friendly Buffy sees right through them (she quickly sets Cissy straight without being the least bit precocious). A wonderful episode from the show's fantastic third season, featuring lovely Veronica Cartwright as one of the 'Raggedy Anns'.
Sympathetic, flabby plot saved by good music and cast
John Astin guest-stars as a disguise-laden, reclusive millionaire named Sydney Rose who is apparently a big fan of The Partridge Family and brings them to his isolated private resort for a concert and dinner. Naturally, Shirley and company bring out the sympathetic side to this friendless man (who made a mint in Melba toast!) and help him to turn his sad life around. Strange episode with heavy pathos features a perplexing sequence wherein a television crew suddenly shows up at the house to interview the Partridges while Sydney Rose is there dressed like a TV repairman (why Rose doesn't hide out in the kitchen isn't explained...and neither is the fact the TV news-people somehow recognize Rose and feature him in their story!). The happy ending is highly contrived, but as usual the music and the bright personalities carry the day. Final song, "One Night Stand", is excitingly photographed, with keenly visual lighting cues and a sexy performance from David Cassidy as Keith.
Even with Jodie Foster guesting, it's a lackluster love affair
Shirley's semi-boyfriend Richard Lawrence brings his pre-teen daughter over to meet the Partridges, and the precocious blonde tyke gets a crush on...Danny? One of the weakest episodes of the otherwise first-rate third season has Jodie Foster guest-starring, yet the script gives her no sharp lines and the director doesn't utilize her inherent smarts or charm. One would think a romantic-minded little girl might swoon over pop-idol Keith instead of Danny, and pudgy Danny Bonaduce is an ill-fitting screen-match with small-stature Foster, who was ten when this was filmed but looks about eight. Not even Women's Lib-minded Laurie bothers to say anything when Foster's Julie turns down her favorite vegetable because Danny hates carrots. The episode smacks of writing done by someone who probably never even watched the show, and the only lively sequence is when Keith and the family launch into "Walking in the Rain" at an unnamed outdoor venue.
Happy Days: Richie Almost Dies (1978)
One of the better 'sentimental' episodes of "Happy Days"
"Happy Days" did attempt some serious shows once in awhile, but usually they were cringe-worthy. Possibly in an attempt to let break-out star Henry Winkler stretch his acting muscles, they actually let his character Fonzie go blind in one episode. Although tragedy strikes Richie in this fifth-season show (via a motorcycle accident), once again it is pal Fonzie who gets to do all the emoting--praying and grieving at Richie's hospital bedside. The sequence which worked for me was a montage of happy family memories set to a tune sang and played on the piano by Leather Tuscadero (Suzi Quatro). The song was not listed in the credits for this episode, nor did it end up on any of real-life rocker Quatro's records, but it is hauntingly sung and, when coupled with the clips, very emotional. But, not to worry, the episode ends happily, with a rather unsubtle warning to kids that cycles can be dangerous...if you're not Arthur Fonzerelli, that is.
The only three-parter of the series
The Davis family is off to Spain (actually the studio backlot), and naturally there's a little romance and adventure--though not enough to fill three episodes! Instead of Buffy or Jody finding puppy love, it's Cissy once again, here being courted by a tour guide with a secret in his past. Uncle Bill finds a senorita of his own, but Mr. French has to play tourist along with the kids, whom he loses when they go to change buses (seems a left-behind Mrs. Beasley is the culprit!). The Spanish sets and extras are pretty well assembled, and it's fun watching Buffy and Jody attempt to fend for themselves (they sleep underneath the hay in a farmhouse and snitch carrots in the morning), but the clever lines and laughs are at a bare minimum. Uncle Bill hardly gets to squire his lady-friend around Spain when the drama hits the fan--and he, Cissy and Mr. French all get stuck at the police station waiting for word on the missing twins. I think two episodes of this would have been sufficient...
A new girl in the building, a little bit older than Buffy but young enough to idolize a teen Cissy's age, snidely gives Buffy the impression she is too old to be playing with Mrs. Beasley (she may have a point), but is Buffy ready to stick Mrs. B. up in the closet? A sweet, though awfully contrived episode has Buffy seeking counseling from a REAL Mrs. Beasley, a kindly old woman who actually runs a doll shop in the neighborhood!! The best part of this episode is Buffy's dilemma, which she takes quite seriously, asking her family members for their opinions and making thoughtful statements like, "I didn't know growing up meant giving away the things you love..."
Family Affair: Ciao, Uncle Bill (1968)
Fear of separation
If there was one strong recurrent theme throughout the run of CBS's "Family Affair", it was the kids' fear that this wonderful set-up with their uncle and his valet would come crashing down and they would once again be farmed out to competing relatives. Surprisingly though, in this third season episode which finds Uncle Bill in Rome romancing a client's glamorous daughter, Cissy, Buffy and Jody truly believe he's ready to rid himself of the three of them in favor of a new life overseas. They even get Mr. French to believe he's abandoning them (to which French responds, "If Mr. Davis doesn't want you in Italy, I shall not go as well"). Curiously enough, their suspicions are almost on the money. Uncle Bill's new fiancée certainly does not expect the kids to come live with them (where does she think they'll live? Perhaps boarding schools?), but Bill makes it sternly clear they are a package deal and where he goes, they go. The episode is built on odd assumptions, misunderstandings, and that old fear of family separation. These themes were always good for "Family Affair", but a bit strange coming in the third year. What will it take to make these kids feel secure??
Mr. French gets his nose out of joint
Chided sarcastically by all the gentlemen's gentlemen in Central Park for becoming a "nanny", Mr. French cools towards the kids in a misguided attempt to get back to his roots (he explains to Uncle Bill, "I have a different attitude towards my work", and Uncle Bill says, "The kids liked the old one better"). French refuses to help Cissy pick out a dress for her date (her new guy likes yellow, to which Buffy says, "Let him wear yellow"), he won't read bedtime stories anymore to Buffy and Jody, and, upon hearing that Miss Faversham has been let go from a neighboring brood in the building, he almost seems to ready to quit his job and have Miss Faversham replace him! Ahh, the power of peer pressure. Lots of good lines and interesting, not too contrived familial situations in this very fine episode.
Family Affair: The Joiners (1971)
One of the best episodes from the not-bad 5th season
Season Five for most situation comedies usually spells lethargy, especially if there are kids in the cast who are growing older and becoming more restless within the confines of their G-rated TV personas. Anissa Jones was approaching thirteen in real-life, but her television alter-ego Buffy was unceremoniously held back at around age ten, still in pigtails and occasionally lugging around doll Mrs. Beasley. Still, one is hard-pressed to separate Jones from Buffy Davis as she approaches the part with so much youthful conviction. Here, Buffy hopes to join a club known as the Mod Maidens (who include Kathy Richards, future mom to Paris Hilton, and acting-wonder Pamelyn Ferdin), but she's too young according to the strictly observed "main rule". Uncle Bill--his heart in the right place--schemes a little on the side to get his niece in, but when this backfires, Buffy has to act in a rather mature way and rise above the other girls (who are supposedly older but not acting like it). In the standard 'second plot', Jody wants to join the Daredevils and asks Uncle Bill to help him like he helped Buffy, but when his uncle says no more meddling, Jody has to be mature enough to understand. These situations were subtle forms of teaching kids how to act responsibly--I don't know if that worked...after all, it didn't help Jones in real-life.
Family Affair: Albertine (1968)
Thoughtful episode from the sterling third season...
A surprising number of minorities turned up on the plushly-produced "Family Affair", usually placed front and center to help the kids on the show learn a lesson about differences (everybody looks different, but we're all pretty much the same). The thoughtful episode "Albertine" is unusual because it's the shy African-American schoolgirl at the heart of the story who learns a little something about others and herself. She lives in the poor section of New York City and tells big tales about her life to cover up, but Buffy and Jody don't care when they learn the truth--they just want everyone to stay friends. "Family Affair" often surrounded the Davis twins with kids and grown-ups who were from different countries, or struggling with disabilities or illness; not one remark is made or eyebrow raised about Albertine's race (which is refreshing), yet the significant contrast between her world and the Davis' is very nicely made.
Family Affair: A Matter of Choice (1968)
Terrific episode from Season Three
The third season of "Family Affair" was arguably the family-oriented show's strongest, with many exceptional, well-written episodes and memorable stories perfectly suited for the cast: Brian Keith as wealthy bachelor engineer Bill Davis, Sebastian Cabot as valet Mr. French, Kathy Garver as "almost eighteen" Cissy, and Anissa Jones and Johnnie Whitaker growing up nicely as twins Buffy and Jody. Here, Uncle Bill is concerned that the young ones are watching too much violent TV; he suggests they play board games instead, but that doesn't work (Buffy's favorite is "Sabotage!"). So he enlists Mr. French to re-introduce the kids to the old-fashioned fairy tales, which also backfires once the grown-ups recall how grisly "Hansel & Gretel" can get (Cabot's high-pitched reading of the Witch is wonderful). In the alternate plot, Cissy has made a new, glamorous school-friend, but quickly comes to realize she's being used as a beard between the girl and her worried mother when pal Gwen stays out late into the night (I'd like to know what happened on her date!). When Cissy sternly lectures Gwen, the girl comes back with a heated, "Hey, don't come on like Big Mama!" Keith occasionally looks a bit sleepy, and lets his Uncle Bill persona drop completely on the tail-ends of scenes, but the kids are terrific here, and there's a fantastic dream sequence which casts French as a bridge-dwelling troll. Another priceless piece of '60's nostalgia.
Oh to be Dick Cavett!
Seated in-between this installment's eclectic guests, Janis Joplin and Raquel Welch, Dick Cavett wryly comments they were all once roommates in college. This glorious chat-session exemplifies how low TV talk shows have sunk in the last two decades--and how we, as the TV-viewing public, have been shortchanged in terms of quality, smart humor, and interesting conversation. Joplin, decked out in a frilly thrift-store ensemble, is quiet and contemplative, an intense listener who had savvy, though soft-spoken opinions. For instance, as Welch is attempting to sell her stillborn controversial sex-change comedy "Myra Breckinridge", Joplin tells her, "You looked good in it...but the movie's too choppy. I couldn't follow it...it kept changing." Welch, far from being rattled, winks and tells Janis, "Well the whole movie's about change." And the audience is hip enough to be in on the joke.
Harry O: APB Harry Orwell (1975)
Solid performances and a quasi-"Fugitive" like plot elevates this episode
David Janssen, who ran for his life for years on "The Fugitive", must have been relieved to see this episode of "Harry O" get wrapped up so quickly! Janssen is framed for murder by a blackmailer posing as Harry Orwell, and the evidence against him is pretty damning. Even perky neighbor Farrah Fawcett-Majors can't vouch for Harry. Lesley Ann Warren (billed as simply Lesley Warren) doesn't have a very juicy role as a pawn in the crime--she's just there to be duped--but she looks great in her short pixie hairdo and bell-bottom jeans. Anthony Zerbe, as always, is amiably tough as the police lieutenant, and Farrah...well, she's got more hair than all the other actors combined (and then some). It's too much hair even for 1975, although Fawcett has a good acting scene with Zerbe and gives her one-dimensional character some real guts. Janssen never overdoes a scene, and in fact his laid-back nature probably cost him in terms of a superstar TV career, but he's just right for this type of dry, straightforward writing. The series is too dark, with rooms going half-lit and the colors mostly brown & beige. Visually it isn't an eyesore, though it is awfully drab.
Mama's Family: My Mama, Myself (1988)
Vicki Lawrence in a dual role as Mama and ghostly Grandma Crowley
Exceptionally funny episode has Vicki Lawrence doing double-duty as Mama AND her dead mother, Grandma Crowley, who comes back from beyond to carp on Thelma's lack of cooking skills, parenting skills, and to warn her not to sell her jewel-encrusted brooch (Naomi says, "Mel Roop's Jewelry Store had a whole display of this kind of junk, and some of those pieces were going for $1000!"). Some very funny scenes involving the family with the ghost of Grandma, whom only Mama can see, with Iola giving Thelma some practical advice which she got out of Modern Psychology magazine. Turns out Grandma's diamond-and-ruby brooch is just garnets and glass, but the show ends on a warm note, with Bubba getting his trip to Oswald Caverns ("Isn't that where them teenagers went in and never come out??") and Thelma overcoming her demons enough to buy her first pair of designer jeans--which we never get to see!!
Mama's Family: Ellen's Boyfriend (1983)
Big laughs when Ellen robs the cradle...
Recently-divorced Ellen (Betty White, struggling a bit with some real-life laryngitis) lands herself a real hunk at her single's club, but is embarrassed to introduce him to the family since he's so much younger. The whole family meets up by accident at Chez Ray, leading Mama into a barrage of insults about Ellen's beau (Vint says, "I thought he was the waiter", followed by Mama's "I thought he was the bus-boy!"). Ends on a sweetly funny note with Mama revealing to Ellen an uncharacteristic personal fault--jealous of Ellen's lifestyle, she figured Ellen would rule out romance like Mama did when her Carl died. Everyone except the two kids have funny lines here, particularly Aunt Fran when she spies Ellen's beaded bag, the one Mama never lets her borrow.
Mama's Family: Obscene Call (1983)
One of the best written shows from "Mama's" early years
Any of the episodes centering around Naomi's job at Food Circus are hilarious, but this one is especially sharp. While wooing her customers with good tidings, in an attempt to win Friendly Employee of the Month, Naomi inadvertently attracts an admirer who makes obscene phone calls to Mama's house. At first, everyone blames Naomi's innate good nature and appeal as the cause of the calls, until Mama, Aunt Fran and even Vint get propositioned too. There are some great family dynamics in this one, with scenes involving everyone and lots of side-splitting, snide comments from Thelma. I usually prefer the later, better-produced shows featuring neighbor Iola and Bubba, yet this early episode is as good as any from the series.
Mama gets hooked on home-shopping!
Iola's innocent buy of a sweater-chain off the TV propels Mama into a home-shopping spree that doesn't end until she gets her credit card statement. One of the funniest episodes from the wonderful fourth season, with Vicki Lawrence's obsession in gaudy goo-gahs resulting in some wild comedy (she evens considers taking in borders to fund her hobby, but Naomi asks her, "Where ya gonna put them in all this mess?"). We learn a little more about Thelma in this show: she has a weakness for bargains and tacky jewelry. The family stages a very funny intervention on Mama, resulting in a happy ending for everyone with the exception of Travis, the home-shopping guru.
Pretty odd...even for "The Twilight Zone"
Mary Badham (Scout from "To Kill a Mockingbird") plays Sport this time, in an Earl Hamner, Jr. teleplay about a brother and sister who are invited to escape their troubled lives by retreating to a magical kiddie-land overseen by a marvelous old woman. Sport is initially wary of this lady and calls her a kidnapper, but there are no twists in this scenario and the lady is just what she seems: a friendly, wholesome Auntie who bakes cakes and sews and gives the kids light chores to keep them active (they better be active if they don't want diabetes!). This episode has a sweetly zonked, dream-like quality (made even more surreal by peculiar overdubbing on Badham during the outdoor scenes--she's given a high, Southern-styled voice by June Foray, Rocky on the "Bullwinkle" cartoons). Still, the lack of an ominous undercurrent makes this a refreshing change for "The Twilight Zone" and it's fun to imagine what the hateful parents will do with each other now that their kids are long gone.
Imaginative, creepy, but inconsistently developed
Bill Bixby gives a sterling performance in this too-brief episode of TV's "Night Gallery", playing a stuffy lawyer whose wife purchases an old statue of a sorcerer who bears a resemblance to Bixby. Memorable shocks include the statue invading Bixby's bedroom, and later causing him to almost barbecue a kitty! This well-acted short cries out to be expanded upon, with ideas which are there but don't quite come to fruition. Carol Lynley is typically blasé as Bixby's wife, but Donna Douglas puts off some sinful heat as Carol's girlfriend (I'm not sure I understand the tag with her back at the antique store, however it's still a tight performance).