Friday, February 10, 2012

“General Electric Theatre”: Two Episodes, 1955

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I screened two episodes of the 1950’s series General Electric Theatre which we’d downloaded from, including one with Myrna Loy and one with Johnnie Ray. The one with Loy was called “It Gives Me Great Pleasure” and cast her as Kate Kennedy, a widow with two sons who since the death of her husband (presumably in World War II, though that isn’t specified) has become a star on a lecture circuit run by David Wadsworth (Zachary Scott, who’s supposed to be playing a mostly sympathetic character but still comes off as a bit of a rotter, especially given that the cinematographer lit his head in a way that made it look like there was a white streak down the middle of his hair, leaving us to wonder if he were wearing a skunk). She’s getting restive because the time she spends lecturing and the even greater time she spends traveling from one city to another is keeping her away from her kids, and she thinks she’s found a way out when she lectures in Dallas and meets the wealthy Jim Tweedy (Robert Preston) — only there’s a misunderstanding between the two that derails their budding relationship and propels her not only back onto the lecture circuit but into the waiting arms of her long-time unrequited lover, David Wadsworth himself (and the sight of Myrna Loy and Zachary Scott, of all people, locked in what’s supposed to be a happily-ever-after embrace is actually a bit queasy; one wonders where William Powell and Joan Crawford are when they’re so clearly needed!).

The other one was considerably more interesting: it was called “The Big Shot,” aired in 1955 (as was “It Gives Me Great Pleasure”) and starred Johnnie Ray (though he was credited with the more normal spelling of his first name, “Johnny,” which irritated him) as Johnny Pulaski, an aspiring singer who wins an audition in New York with a demo of a song called “Paths of Paradise” (though what we hear is a fully orchestrated arrangement of the song — obviously it was his then-current Columbia single and he was hoping the show would promote it) and looks set for a job on a radio show. Only he bristles at being asked to sing songs like “Moonlight in Vermont” (a then-current hit and a lousy vehicle for Ray’s voice) and bristles even more about being told by his would-be manager, Norris (Ralph Sanford), that he can’t be successful with an ethnic name like “Pulaski” and he will need to change it. At one point Norris starts rattling off a long list of names and it soon becomes clear both to Johnny and to the audience that he’s asking Johnny to pick one — and one of them is “Johnny Harvard.”

This plot is so close to the famous story of Harry James’ attempt to get Frank Sinatra to change his name to “Frankie Satin” (Sinatra, as the world knows, refused, and later he joked, “If I’d gone along with it I’d be working cruise ships today”) I wondered if that was the inspiration for Beatrice Joy Chute’s script. Ray, his famous hearing aid clearly visible on screen (he had become partially deaf in one ear due to a childhood accident, and later he began to lose his hearing in the other ear as well; needless to say, nasty critics who didn’t like him joked that he’d been deafened by the sound of his own voice), is actually quite credible as an actor (a good deal better than he was in his only feature film, There’s No Business Like Show Business), clearly nervous at being forced into a mold and a style not his own, equally nervous about whether he’s good enough to make the grade in the big-time, and forthright and fervent about keeping his family’s last name when even his father (Steven Geray) says he won’t mind his son compromising and taking another name for his career. (It occurred to me that “Palmer” might have been a workable Anglicization of “Pulaski,” just as Italian-American singer Antonio di Benedetto from San Francisco Anglicized his name and achieved enduring fame as Tony Bennett) — and the song “Paths to Paradise,” grandiloquent as all hell and more than a bit pretentious, is nonetheless quite good and could stand with a revival.