Monday, December 25, 2017

The Dick Van Dyke Show: “My Blonde-Haired Brunette" and "October Eve" (Calvada Productions, Desilu Studios, CBS-TV, 1961 & 1963)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night, after the two episodes of I Love Lucy colorized in shrieking tones, came two episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, which I remember from my youth as brilliantly funny when it focused on the exploits of Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) and his colleagues, Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) and Sally Rogers (Rose Marie — she was the precocious child singer who belted out “My Bluebird Is Singing the Blues” in the 1932 film International House and, amazingly, she’s still alive and active at 94!) as comedy writers for TV star Alan Brady (Carl Reiner). (I love the irony that on the show Dick Van Dyke was playing a writer for Carl Reiner, while in fact Reiner was the show’s creator and principal writer for Van Dyke and the rest of the cast!) Unfortunately, this show was considerably less interesting when it went home with Rob at the end of his workday to New Rochelle, New York and spent time with Rob, his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) and their son Ritchie (Larry Mathews). I remember even as a kid being annoyed by Mary Tyler Moore, with her constant whining and snit-throwing, and her performance is even more infuriating now that we watch it in the context of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and her surprise emergence as a feminist icon instead of her role here, as the stereotypical ditz wife in a sexist’s conception of marriage. (At least Gracie Allen and Lucille Ball made this silly stereotype funny! Maybe the fact that Allen and Ball were both playing it alongside their real-life husbands helped.)

Unfortunately, last night CBS chose to air two of the “domestic” episodes instead of any of the “work” episodes — and one was a really silly one called “My Blonde-Haired Brunette” that was only the second show in the series (originally aired October 10, 1961). At a time when Clairol was advertising their hair dye with the breathless slogan, “Is it true blondes have more fun?”, it’s obvious Carl Reiner (who in addition to being the show’s producer, creator and runner, wrote this particular episode) thought it would be topical to do a story in which Laura Petrie starts to suspect that her husband is losing interest in her — especially when he picks out a strand of what he says is grey hair from her head — and she and her best friend and neighbor Millie Helper (Ann Morgan Guilbert), who works as a beautician and was essentially the Ethel Mertz of this show (her husband was played by Jerry Paris, who also directed some of the episodes) decide that the way to win back Rob’s affections and get him to fall in love with her again is to dye her hair blonde. Unfortunately, the effect they used to transform Mary Tyler Moore into a blonde was one of the most blatantly fake wigs ever seen in any sort of filmed entertainment — she looks like a high-school girl trying to make herself over as Marilyn Monroe — and during the day Rob calls her from work and they end up in the middle of a conversation about her hair in which he says he likes her just as the brunette she is (was). So Millie, whose own shop is out of brown dye, has to put in an emergency call to a druggist (veteran comedian Benny Rubin) to get the brown dye — and there’s a great shot (that probably looks even better in color, since these episodes, like the I Love Lucy show CBS ran just before them, had been colorized) in which Millie is halfway through the process, so that Laura’s hair is blonde on one side of her head and brunette on the other. (You want to walk in the screen and tell them, “Don’t laugh! Some day that look will be fashionable!”) This might have been screamingly funny if Mary Tyler Moore weren’t so ridiculously whiny and the concept itself so sexist.

The second Dick Van Dyke episode, “October Eve,” was funnier, though it still suffered from Moore’s almost neurotic portrayal of the stereotypical stupid wife — no one watching this show would have been able to predict how Moore would blossom as an actress in her own show, when she got to play an assertive woman instead of a domesticated ditz — and was from the middle of the show’s run (season 3, episode 28, aired April 8, 1964). It centers around an art gallery which is exhibiting a painting called “October Eve” — obviously a parody of the famous piece of nudist kitsch, “September Morn” — which Sally Rogers (Rose Marie), whose vivid portrayal of a salty, no-nonsense woman made Mary Tyler Moore’s mincing and whining look even more distasteful by comparison, notices is actually a picture of Laura Petrie … in the nude. Apparently years before, shortly after she married Rob, he gave her an outfit of a black top and black slacks of which she was particularly proud, and she decided to return the favor by having herself painted in it. Unfortunately, the artist, Sergei Carpetna (played in a madly funny turn by the show’s creator, Carl Reiner, himself), who seems like he’s walked in from the dramatis personae of My Sister Eileen, indulged in artistic license and painted Laura accurately above the neck, but below it went wild with his imagination.

When Laura hired him to do the painting Carpetna was a starving artist who charged $50 per painting; now he’s world-famous and the paintings cost $5,000 — thereby stymieing Rob’s initial plan to buy the picture himself to make sure no one sees it. Laura never thought Carpetna would show the painting publicly since she’d thrown something at it; little did she know that he restored it and thinks it’s one of his greatest works. He has three possible buyers, one an eccentric millionaire who lives in Brazil and wants to hang it privately on the walls of his mountaintop redoubt, while the other two want to show it publicly. Rob learns from Laura that she actually paid Carpetna the $50 for the painting, and therefore the Petries legally own it, though Laura threw away the receipt (a hand-painted receipt that Carpetna boasts themselves have become collector’s items); Rob eventually bluffs Carpetna into agreeing to let him pick which buyer he’ll sell the painting to as his price for not legally contesting the sale, and of course he picks the guy from Brazil. There’s a final punch line when we see the painting and it’s a Picasso-esque jumble of limbs that almost no one, including a CBS Standards and Programming executive (that was the Newspeak name the networks gave their censors back then), would get in a snit about. The show is great fun when Sergei Carpetna is on screen — the highlight is when he and Rob Petrie fire paint-loaded water pistols at a canvas (one of the off-beat techniques 1960’s artists like Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely sometimes used) — but once again Mary Tyler Moore’s sexist characterization is really hard to take: it was hard to take when this show was new and got even harder to take after she did her own show and showed how much more she was capable of!