Sunday, April 3, 2016

Trouble with Father: “Jackie Knows All” (Robert Reed Productions/Hal Roach Studios/ABC-TV, 12/7/51)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I filled out our evening with an intriguing item from the James Dean: The Lost Television Legacy boxed set: a 1951 episode of The Stu Erwin Show, also known as Trouble with Father. Stu Erwin, a veteran of interesting early-1930’s movies like The Big Broadcast with Bing Crosby, International House with W. C. Fields and Pigskin Parade with Judy Garland (a formidable list of talents his presence here puts one degree of separation from James Dean!), apparently saw the huge success other showbiz couples were having on TV — particularly The George Burns-Gracie Allen Show and, of course, I Love Lucy — and decided he wanted some of that for himself, so he dragooned his real-life wife June Collyer Erwin into a family sitcom in which Stu would play a high-school principal (though there’s no intimation in this particular episode of what he does for a living) and the focus would be on his home life with his wife and their two daughters, Jackie (billed here as Sheila James but later known as openly Lesbian California legislator Sheila Kuehl — so the Bisexual James Dean wasn’t the only Queer in this cast!) and Joyce (Ann E. Todd). The episode featuring James Dean was first aired December 7, 1951 (tenth anniversary of the Day That Will Live in Infamy!) and was called “Jackie Knows All,” in which a series regular identified only as “Boy with Glasses” (Teddy Infuhr) sells younger daughter Joyce a book that’s supposed to be able to read minds. When it proves less than successful, the boy brings over a radio with a microphone attached through which they’re able to bug just about anybody and overhear secret conversations. There’s also a subplot about Stu holding a piece of swampland property that’s suddenly become valuable because the city is going to build an airport on it and drain the swamp to make that possible, and Mr. Parsons (Emory Parnell) and an agent named Smith want to buy the property, pay a low-ball price for it and thus make the money on the land acquisition for the airport. Joyce, the Boy with Glasses (who looks like he’s going to grow up to be one of the original inventors of the personal computer) and their magical bugging radio overhear the scheme between Parsons and Smith. They also overhear Jackie’s boyfriend, Drexel (the almost terminally boring Martin Milner — when we watched him in Valley of the Dolls I wondered if director Mark Robson had an assistant with a little mirror to hold under Milner’s face and see if he was still breathing after a particularly somnolent take from him), talking with Randy (James Dean, making a few bucks during his first stint in L.A. before he headed to New York to attend the Actors’ Studio and do live TV there to support himself) about how to keep a woman’s interest in you by keeping her waiting so Jackie doesn’t find out until the last minute that Drexel does intend to invite her to the school dance. This show was shot on film at the old Hal Roach studios by producer Roland Reed, and thus it doesn’t have the technical limits of the ancient kinescopes of live TV shows of the period — but it’s also not very interesting and would be of no moment whatsoever if Dean weren’t in it.